Now Arriving from – China

Hello Reading Fans!

How did this month of the Online Reading Challenge treat you? Did you find something really fantastic to read? Something that opened a little window of understanding of the great mystery that is China?

I’m afraid I didn’t do so well this month – I got caught up in reading other books and never came across anything China-related that grabbed my attention. These things happen sometimes (This is why I’m not very good with traditional book clubs – the rebel in me doesn’t always want to read the chosen book!) Fortunately, there aren’t any Library Police and I can simply try again next month!

I do want to draw your attention to two favorite movies set in China that deal with the ancient history of China and are deeply rooted in mysticism. Both are absolutely beautiful

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon caused quite a sensation when it first came out and you may very well have already seen it. Beautifully photographed, superb acting and a story that requires the watcher, much like the characters, to take a leap of faith makes this a film that linger long after the closing credits. A young Chinese warrior steals a sword from a famed swordsman and then escapes into a world of adventure with a mysterious man in the frontier of the nation with serious, long-reaching consequences.

Hero, starting Jet Li, was released shortly after Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and may have been overshadowed by it, but it is stunning in it’s own right.  Set in ancient China, warring factions plot to assassinate the most powerful ruler, Qin. When a minor official defeats Qin’s three deadly enemies, he is summoned to the palace to tell Qin the story of his surprising victory. The martial arts scenes, beautifully, artfully choreographed, are worth watching alone but the message, about power and how it is wielded is relevant to all times and societies.

Now Departing for – China

Welcome to the next month in our Online Reading Challenge! This month we are headed for China, a country that, for many of us, remains mysterious and unknown with a long, complex history and multiple cultures. A great book can crack open that door of mystery in the best possible way.

China as a subject offers a large number of intriguing and interesting books. Achee Min’s The Last Empress follows the last days of the Ch’ing Dynasty as overseen by Tzu Hsi. Maligned in the Western press as a ruthless, power-mad assassin, Min offers a different view of a powerful woman that did everything for her country and her family.

Under Heaven by Gabriel Kay is set in a imaginary kingdom in ancient China during the T’ang Dynasty. To honor the death of his father, Shen Tai spends two years burying the dead at a battle site on the kingdom’s border. When he receives a gift of 250 coveted horses, he realizes he is in terrible danger and seeks an audience with the Emperor. Detailed, nuanced, completely engrossing, this is a massive novel that you can easily (and happily) get lost in.

Lisa See has written many novels of China and of the Chinese immigrant experience in America. Set in 19th century China when women had little value except to produce male children, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is the story of a “laotong” (an arranged friendship of two young girls that is meant to last a lifetime) between Lily and her laotong, the beautiful Snow Flower. A misunderstanding between them has far reaching consequences. This is a fascinating peek into a secretive and hidden world but a warning – the part when the girls undergo foot binding is not for the squeamish (I still shudder when I think about it)

For an examination of the push and pull of between new and old that Chinese immigrants to America feel, you can’t do better than Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. The younger generation is eager to embrace the modern world but the past and the old country, as remembered by their parents, continues to shape and influence them. Four Chinese women who immigrated to America in 1949 are drawn together to share stories and play mah-jong. Through the years we follow their triumphs and losses and those of their American-born daughters.

There are lots more choices out there. Watch for our displays at each building for more suggestions. And then let us know what you’ll be reading this month!

Now Arriving From – London

Hello Fellow Reading Fans!

How did September go for you? Did you find something fabulous to read that was set in London? There certainly isn’t a lack of great reading material set in the English capital. With so much history and culture and so much influence on the world (an Empire that at one time spanned the globe), the possibilities for excellent reading material are nearly endless.

I chose to read a fairly new novel, Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave. Set in London during World War II, it focuses on the home front during the London Blitz and the hardships suffered and bravery shown by those left behind. Typical dry British wit and stiff upper lip attitude contrast with the very real terror and danger of London under siege making for a tense and absorbing read.

When war is declared in 1939, Mary immediately leaves her school in Switzerland and races back to London, convinced that she will miss out on the “action” and volunteers at the War Office. Instead of becoming a spy as she has imagined, she is assigned a position teaching children who have not been evacuated. She is disappointed and frustrated, but then the Blitz begins and she is suddenly in the midst of the “action” and it’s brutality. A growing friendship with her boyfriend’s roommate, who is stationed in Malta, brings the horrors of the front lines to the story and shows that there are many ways to be brave both at home and in the field. A fascinating, bittersweet look at wartime London.

Now it’s your turn – what did you read in September? Let us know in the comments!

Now Departing for: London

Fellow Fans of Books!

Don’t get your knickers in a twist – we’re heading to London this month! It’s going to be brilliant!

There is no lack of books set in London. In fact, there is a glut of books set in London. There should be no problem finding something of interest! Here are a few ideas to get you started.

The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber. In 1870s London, a prostitute known as Sugar sees a potential way out of the brothel she works for when she is taken in by William Rackham, the son of a wealthy businessman.

The Royal We by Heather Cocks. Adventure-seeking Bex goes to Oxford and meets dreamy Nick across the hall – and thus Bex who accidentally finds herself in love with the eventual heir to the British throne

The Postmistress by Sarah Blake. In London covering the Blitz with Edward R. Murrow, Frankie Bard meets a Cape Cod doctor in a shelter and promises that she’ll deliver a letter for him when she finally returns to the United States.

Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding. Bridget Jones takes readers on a tour of a hilarious year-in-the-life of a confused thirty-something singleton who would have all the answers if she could just lose seven pounds, stop smoking, and attain inner poise.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. Assuming the power recently lost by the disgraced Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas Cromwell counsels a mercurial Henry VIII on the latter’s efforts to marry Anne Boleyn against the wishes of Rome, a successful endeavor that comes with a dangerous price.

And, of course, there are dozens of mystery authors to explore – Arthur Conan Doyle, PD James, Laurie King, Anne Perry, Jacqueline Winspear and Elizabeth George to name just a few. From historical fiction to modern satire, just about every literary taste can be met. Watch the displays at each Davenport library location for lots more suggestions.

I’m going to be reading Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave which takes place during the Battle of Britain in World War II, a book that’s been on my “to-read” list for a long time. What will you be reading?

Now Departing for : Texas

Hello Online Reading Challenge Members!

Yee haw! We’re off to the Wild West this month! Well, we’re off to Texas and the American Southwest, a part of the United States with a colorful history that continues to be a favorite of writers and film makers alike. There will be no shortage of excellence this month.

I have to admit, when I first drew up this year’s list of subjects for the Online Reading Challenge I included the American Southwest with Texas because I didn’t think there would be enough books just on Texas. Wrong! I discovered lots of great titles, many of which are among my personal favorites. Here are some of them:

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. Don’t let the various awards (including the Pulitzer Prize) for the this book scare you off as “too literary”. It is indeed a masterpiece of writing and a joy to read, but more importantly, it’s a masterpiece of storytelling. It is the story of one last epic cattle drive across open country, fiercely real, set against an unforgiving landscape and filled with tragedy and triumph,  You will never forget the characters or their stories. An excellent mini-series, starring Robert Duval and Tommy Lee Jones, is also highly recommended.

News of the World by Paulette Jiles reminded me quite a bit of Lonesome Dove although it’s a very different story. What they have in common is uncommon characters, epic adventure and tragedy and triumph. I blogged about it in more detail last year. Highly recommended.

If you have not read Tony Hillerman’s books then do yourself a favor and start! Set in the Navajo Territory, these books follow Lt Leaphorn and Officer Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police as they work to solve crimes in this beautiful but remote and isolated part of the country. While these are on the surface crime-solving mysteries, there is a lot going on beneath the surface including the push and pull of old vs new – Leaphorn is older but does not believe in the Navajo myths; Chee is a young man studying to become a Navajo shaman – and the frequent misunderstandings between cultures. Hillerman was a master writer, spare and evocative with great respect for the Navajo Nation. Amazing books. The Blessing Way was the first book; Skinwalkers is the first with Leaphorn and Chee working together; The Thief of Time is probably my favorite (although I love them all).

Finally, there are many tv shows and movies set in Texas and the Southwest. My favorite is Friday Night Lights and I will argue that it is one of the best television shows ever. Starring Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton, this series features great writing, excellent characters and epic stories all beautifully filmed and with a pitch perfect final episode. Set against the backdrop of football crazy Texas, it’s actually about family and friendship, finding your own way and growing up. I wrote (enthusiastically) about the show here and here.

My plan for August is to go to the classics and read Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop I’ll you know how it goes.

Now, what about you? What are you reading this month?

Now Arriving from : Alaska

Welcome Back Online Reading Challengers!

How was your July? Did you find something wonderful about Alaska this month? Surely reading about all that cold and snow helped keep you cool here in Iowa!

I read The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey, a story that is both hopeful and heartbreaking. Set in frontier Alaska where conditions are harsh and homesteading is hard work, The Snow Child is about a middle-aged couple who have come to Alaska for a fresh start. Their only child has died and they are unable to have another. Mabel, struggling with grief is considering killing herself and she and her husband Jack are drifting further and further apart. They are just barely hanging on. One day, impulsively, Jack and Mabel build a snow child and soon after they begin to see glimpses of a small girl in the woods. Who is she? Where did she come from? Is she safe alone in the woods?

Over time Jack and Mabel befriend the girl and welcome her into their home and hearts. She grows into a beautiful young woman, but there is something wild and otherworldly about her, as if she is only here temporarily. What follows is a story about family, both those we are born into and those we create, about surviving sorrow and finding joy again. The land of Alaska plays a big part in this book and is beautifully described – you can almost feel the cold winter winds or see the brilliant sunshine. Ivey is a native Alaskan and her love and respect for the land and wildlife are evident. Based on a traditional Russian fairy tale, this is a lovely, thoughtful book.

Now it’s your turn – what have you read this month?


Alaska – Halfway Home

So, how is reading about the Great White North going for you – have you found anything that has grabbed your attention or made you want to move to Alaska and begin a life of rugged outdoor adventure?

If you’re looking for rugged, wilderness adventure, but prefer to live near running water and grocery stores, check out some of the great movies about Alaska; many of them will have you on the edge of your seat.

Insomnia stars Al Pacino, Robin Williams and Hilary Swank. It follows an LA police detective trying to solve a murder in a small Alaskan town. Already having difficulty sleeping, the never-setting midnight sun of the Alaskan summer wrecks havoc on his mental state until he has trouble telling what is real and what is not.

Into the Wild, directed by Sean Penn and starring Emile Hirsch is an adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s ground-breaking book, the true story of a privileged young man leaving everything behind to live in the Alaskan wilderness with less than successful results.

The Grey, starring Liam Neeson is about a group of men stranded in the winter in the Alaskan wilderness after their small plane crashes. Relentlessly pursued by rogue wolves and battling the elements and their injuries, this is a brutal and suspenseful story.

If you prefer your entertainment a little less terrifying, try The Proposal, starring Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds. Bullock’s character, a high-powered executive, threatened with deportation back to Canada, announces that she is (unknown to him) engaged to her assistant. His price for agreeing is that she travel to his family home in Alaska and see if his relatives accept her. Hilarity ensues. A charming, light-as-air romantic comedy.

Any one of these should help cool you off during this hot Iowa summer. What are you going to watch (or read)?


Now Departing for: Alaska

Hello Fellow Online Challenge Readers!

This month we’re heading north, to Alaska. Just the name conjures up images of a rugged, wild frontier. A land of extremes – in landscape, in weather, in individualism, in wildlife, this beautiful place is full of adventures great and small and has the stories to prove it.

You’ll find a wide range of titles to choose from this month. There are quite a few mysteries set in Alaska, including the Kate Shugak series by Dana Stabanow and the Maxie and Stretch series by Sue Henry. There are also a lot of romances, like, a lot. Maybe all that cold weather is good for snuggling? Check out Fire and Ice by Julie Garwood, Northern Lights by Nora Roberts or Darkness by Karen Robards.

For fiction, consider Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union about a (fictional) Jewish state that has been established in Sitka, Alaska after World War II. Protocol Zero by James Abel (also known as Clive Cussler), is a thriller that fans of Michael Crichton will appreciate. To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey is historical fiction set in 1885, told through the letters of a young couple. Or try Jodi Picoult’s The Tenth Circle, a story of revenge set the in the Alaskan bush.

If you prefer non-fiction, you’ve got some great books to look at including Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer about a privileged young man who headed into the wilds of Alaska in an attempt to live off the land, or 81 Days Below Zero by Brian Murphy about a young Army pilot that survived brutal conditions after crash landing in the Arctic in 1943.

I am going to read Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey about a childless couple homesteading in Alaska who, after building a figure out of snow, find a little girl in their woods. It sounds like an intriguing mix of history and magical realism. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Now, what about you – what are you reading this month?


Now Arriving from: San Francisco

Hello Fellow Reading Fans!

We’re back from the City by the Bay – how was your virtual visit? Did you find a book that gave you a taste of the city?

I hit the jackpot this month and read a great book – Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. Set mostly in San Francisco, the story revolves around a mysterious bookstore that is open 24 hours a day and caters to a very particular clientele. More that that it’s an exploration of old vs new, of how pen and paper (and books) mesh with and clash with technology and new ideas.

Stephanie wrote a great review of this book for the blog a couple of years ago which I suggest you check out. It gives you a great description of what the book is about (without spoilers) and why it’s so good. It’s also pretty funny – Clay’s internal dialogue is often hilarious (and very relatable) and while San Francisco isn’t an integral part of the story, it does add a lot of character to the setting. Read it – it’s sooooo good!

Bonus: if you like to judge a book by it’s cover and mostly pick up a book because of its appearance rather than what the blurb says, then you have to check this one out because the cover glows in the dark! Yep. I tested it myself and it really does glow in the dark. Kinda super-awesome.

So, what about you – did you find anything super-awesome to read (or listen to or watch) this month? Tell us!

Halfway Home : San Francisco

Hello Fellow Readers!

How are you liking our trip to San Francisco so far? Do you have an overwhelming urge to eat Rice-a-Roni? (omg that aged me!) Have you managed to soak up some of the atmosphere and culture and history of this lovely city?

If you’re having trouble settling on a book, you might want to try a movie. Some great classics are set in San Francisco including Dirty Harry with Clint Eastwood and Vertigo with James Stewart. Or check out the award winning Milk starring Sean Penn (who won an Oscar for his performance) about the first openly gay man to hold an elected public office. Or try a TV series set in San Francisco such as Monk starring Tony Shalhoub as a private detective with OCD.

And don’t forget, we have lots of Books on CD, especially nice for a summer road trip. Or check out Overdrive which has both ebooks and audio books – your local library is never far away, no matter where you are in the world!