Online Reading Challenge – Wrap-Up

Hello Fellow Readers!

How did your “spy reading” go this month? Did you read something that kept your interest during this difficult and confusing time?

I read Code Name Helene by Ariel Lawhon, a fictionalized account about a real person. Well, I meant to read this book this month, but, sadly, it didn’t happen. I blame the pandemic as I found myself constantly distracted. They claim that Shakespeare wrote King Lear while in isolation during the Black Plague, but he didn’t have 24/7 news or social media to block out! Here’s to hoping my reading mojo comes back soon!

I did get started on Code Name Helene and it certainly has potential. So here’s a quick overview of what it’s about and my initial impressions.

Nancy Wake left Australia in the 1930s as a young woman, seeking adventure. She traveled throughout Europe as a journalist and socialite, making contacts with the wealthy and the powerful. She was free-spirited, independent and stubborn, walking into danger without hesitation. As the Nazi’s gain power in Germany, she struggles to raise the alarm but finds that many people, such as her editor, don’t want to hear what she is telling them. Unable to stand aside and do nothing, Nancy becomes a spy for the Allies. Known for her signature red lipstick, ferocious wit and her fearlessness, Nancy eventually becomes one of the most powerful leaders of the French Resistance, frequently putting herself and her loved ones in danger.

The story jumps across timelines, from the late 1930s to the end of World War II and from the point-of-view of several characters. I often enjoy this style of storytelling, feeling that it gives a more complete view of what happened and the results and consequences. However, I was having more trouble keeping track of characters, locations and dates with this book – perhaps it was my pandemic-induced distraction, but I found it hard to really fall into the world of this novel.

Nevertheless, Code Name Helene has great potential as a superior spy novel with it’s brave heroine set during one of the pivotal periods of history.

Now it’s your turn. What did you read this month? Tell us in the comments!

Online Reading Challenge – Mid Month Check-in

Hello Readers!

How is your reading going so far this month? It’s a crazy time so you wouldn’t be blamed if your usual reading habits have veered off course. Maybe a movie or documentary would appeal to you? Here are some to look for that center on spies, real and imagined.

Since access to the library and our collections is still limited, let’s started with a couple of free online services that we offer! First up is Acorn TV which is a treasure trove of British and foreign television series and films. Here you’ll find the documentary David Janson’s Secret Service that examines the real-life versions of some of Ian Fleming’s most iconic characters – “M”, “Q” and James Bond himself. Another documentary available on Acorn TV is The Spy Who Went Into the Cold  about the devastating betrayal of top MI-6 official Kim Philby and his defection to the USSR in 1963.

A service just added to the Library’s digital content line-up is IndieFlix  an eclectic mix of independent shorts, documentaries and feature films. You’ll find lots of classics including the brilliant Notorious staring Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman about a woman asked to spy on a group of Nazi’s living in South America. Or check out British Intelligence starring Boris Karloff about German spies placed in the home of a high-ranking British official during World War I.

At this time the Library is planning on reopening the drive-up window at Fairmount beginning on May 18. There will be strict guidelines to follow to protect both patrons and staff, but you should be able to start picking up reserves again. Fill your “spy” section of the Online Reading Club with a James Bond film like Skyfall or something humorous like The Kingsmen or The Spy Who Dumped Me. If you’re in the mood for bingeing a television series, try Turn: Washington’s Spies about spies during the Revolutionary War or The Americans about Russian double agents living in the United States.

Online Reading Challenge – May

Here we go, continuing with the Online Reading Challenge! This month our inspiration film is: Casino Royale!

That’s right – Bond, James Bond. Or anything about spies, real or imagined. Usually seen as super-cool and very secretive, they have been fodder for lots of great stories. Here are some titles and authors to get you started.

John le Carre has set the standard for writing excellent, intriguing spy stories. His most well-known book, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, considered a masterpiece, delves into the intricate, complicated world of spycraft at the height of the Cold War. Others by le Carre to read include Smiley’s People, Agent Running the in Field, The Constant Gardener and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

Other authors that deliver lots of action and intrigue include the Jack Ryan series by Tom Clancy (starting with The Hunt for Red October taking place on nuclear submarine), The Jason Bourne series by Robert Ludlum (the first being The Bourne Identity where a CIA agent has lost of his memory).

The Cold War provided a huge amount of material for spy novels, what with the paranoia and secrecy and fear of that time, but wars have also been fertile ground. Ken Follet’s Eye of the Needle, about a German spy in World War II, is a favorite of many. Or read the excellent The Alice Network by Kate Quinn that details the exploits and sacrifices of women spies in World War I.

Other authors to consider include Alan Furst, Fredrick Forsyth, Vince Flynn and Daniel Silva. And, oh yes, Ian Fleming.

I am planning on reading Code Name Helene by Ariel Lawhon, based on the real-life story of Nancy Wake, a socialite who spied on the Nazi’s and became a deadly member of the French Resistance.

As of this writing, the library is still closed to the public. When we open again (soon, I hope!) there will be displays at each building with lots of titles to choose from. Also, be sure to look at our collection of e-books with Overdrive. You’ll find lots of titles about spies – simply type “spy novels” or “spies” in the search bar on Overdrive!

Online Reading Challenge Wrap Up

So. That was quite a month, wasn’t it? How did you do with your Online Challenge reading? I have to admit, I haven’t been reading as much lately. With the extra time at home, I had thought I would get lots of reading done, but I’ve found that I get distracted easily. I think it has to do with this new normal that we are living through, adjusting and absorbing how life is now and wondering what it will be like in the future. What about you, are you having issues adjusting?

I did read a book for this month’s theme which was inspired by the film and television series Downton Abbey. I read A Duty to the Dead by Charles Todd, the first in the Bess Crawford mystery series. While I enjoyed the book, I found it slow in parts and it didn’t grab my attention completely.

Bess Crawford is a nurse serving in the British army during World War I. She is injured when the hospital ship she is on, the HMHS Britannic, is sunk by a German mine (a true event) Home again in England to recuperate, she is haunted by a promise she made to Arthur Graham, a soldier she cared for who died in France, a promise that she has yet to fulfill. At her father’s urging she takes the time now while she is home to lay this promise to rest.

Traveling by train to Kent, Bess pays a visit to the Graham family estate and delivers Arthur’s cryptic message to his family. They are startling unimpressed and, while polite, seem to have no interest in pursuing the matter further. Delayed on her return, Bess stays with the Grahams a few extra days and discovers a complicated family dynamic with a mysterious brother hidden away in an insane asylum. Bess gets caught up in the dramas of the small local village (jumping in to help the local doctor in an emergency) and the mystery surrounding the Graham family.

There was a lot I liked about this book – the brave, level-headed Bess, the time period and the settings. The sinking of the HMHS Britannic at the beginning of the book was very interesting and exciting, but I found the pace of the rest of the book slowed and even dragged at times. It is the first of the series though and it will be worth trying more titles in this popular series in the future.

How was your reading this month? Did you read anything good? Let us know in the comments!

Vintage Roads Great and Small on Acorn TV

Tootling along in a bright blue vintage Morgan 4/4 roadster, Christopher Timothy and Peter Davison set out to explore some of the most iconic – and most beautiful – roads of Great Britain in this delightful series, Vintage Roads Great and Small.

Timothy and Davison are longtime friends, having met when they filmed the beloved series All Creatures Great and Small which aired for many years on local PBS stations. (Does anyone else remember the series? My Mother and I loved it and watched it every Sunday night. When we traveled to England one of our major goals was to visit the Yorkshire Dales where the series took place.) Based on the books by James Herriot, the series follows the story of a young veterinarian working in the remote Yorkshire Dales during the 1930s. The books and the series are filled with funny and heartbreaking stories about the animals and their people, many of whom are very eccentric characters. The Dales, while wild and unforgiving, are also breathtakingly beautiful. I recommend both the books and the series as great fun for everyone in the family.

Timothy (who played the young vet James Herriot) and Davison (who played Tristan Farnam) have a comfortable give and take, poking fun at each other and stopping whenever something catches their fancy which include vintage cars, British history and ancient (but not always passable) roads. Road trips have included a drive through the Scottish Highlands from Inverness to the Isle of Skye and a trip from London to the southern tip of England at Land’s End. Just like in the television series they became famous for, they tell stories (some a bit embellished!) and find interesting characters to chat with along the way.

Haven’t tried Acorn TV yet? It’s a streaming service that offers the best of British mysteries, dramas and documentaries and it’s free through the Davenport Library. Visit our Digital Content page and click on the Acorn TV logo to get started. All you’ll need is a (free) account with RBDigital and your library card number.

Simon the Fiddler by Paulette Jiles

Set against an atmospheric backdrop of a rough and nearly lawless East Texas near the end of the Civlil War, Simon the Fiddler by Paulette Jiles is a story of overcoming hardship, taking chances and following your dreams no matter what.

Simon Boudin is a gifted fiddler that has been dogged by hard luck. He scrapes together a living by playing at dodgy taverns scattered through the wild west. By March of 1865 he has managed to avoid conscription into either army, but his luck runs out when his volatile temper gets the better of him and he gets into a bar fight. Hauled off to jail, he is picked up by the Confederate Army and forced into service. Because he is a fiddler and a very good one, he is put into the regimental band and manages to mostly avoid harm.

Just as the Civil War is winding down, Simon and his rag-tag band are sent to play for a victorious Union colonel who is throwing a party for the officers and their families from both the North and the South. It is here that Simon meets Doris, an Irish servant indentured to work for the colonel and his family. Although their meeting is brief, Simon and Doris make a connection. Driven apart by their duties – Simon sent away with the Army, Doris leaving with the colonel – they spend the next many months working to find each other again. Doris is miserable and feeling trapped as a servant while Simon struggles to save enough money from the jobs he and his band can find, enough to buy some land and make a life with Doris.

Through many obstacles – poverty, Yellow Fever, lawlessness, abject cruelty – there is also strength through friendship, a helping hand and the belief in love. While this is a slower read than Jile’s popular (and excellent) previous book News of the World, this book has the power to draw you in, to root for characters that are flawed but striving for something better, to morn their loses and cheer their triumphs.

 

Online Reading Challenge – Mid-Month Check

Hello!

I hope this finds you safe and healthy – these are crazy times we’re living through, aren’t they? I also hope you’re finding the Library’s online services helpful – though we miss seeing you at one of our locations, using e-books or e-audiobooks is a great alternative!

Usually at our Mid-Month Check, I suggest movies or television series that you can check out from the library that fit with that month’s theme. This month, of course, we aren’t checking out physical items so instead, I’m going to point you toward another great online resource available through the Library – Acorn TV! Acorn is a collection of mostly British television series that you can stream for free! There’s an amazing collection of shows to watch, perfect for staying-home and, since so many of them are British, a lot of them will fit into this month’s theme of Downton Abbey! Here’s a selection to get you started.

Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries – set in the 1920s, this delightful series actually takes place in Australia (but it still counts!) with the fashionable Miss Fisher solving a variety of intriguing mysteries.

Victorian House of Arts and Crafts – this is a fun documentary that follows 21st century craftsmen as they work on renovate a Victorian-era house using 19th century tools and techniques.

Keeping the Castle is another documentary, this one about the expense and upkeep of one of those huge country estates in the modern age.

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes is a series featuring classic mysteries with a variety of investigators set in the same time period as Sherlock Holmes.

It’s easy to get started with Acorn TV; simply go to the Davenport Library homepage, click on Digital Content, then click on the Acorn TV. You’ll need your library card number and an RB Digital account (also free) Licenses check out for one week with unlimited renewals.

Of course, you can also watch something from your own collection of DVDs or your streaming services (there are no Library Police!) Mostly, I recommend finding something fun and distracting!

Online Reading Challenge – April

Welcome to the April edition of the Online Reading Challenge! Here is a low-pressure challenge that can help distract you – perfect for this crazy time.

This month our movie inspiration is: Downton Abbey!

Lose yourself in the elegant and refined world of the English upper class where every whim is handled by the staff. Or venture into the world of “downstairs” with the hardworking servants and their endless duties. To give us a wide range of topics to choose from, I’m including the wildly popular Downton Abbey television series, so our time period runs from the early 1900s (just after the Titanic sank) to the 1930s and beyond. A lot happened during that time – a devastating world war, the rise of women’s rights, a decline of the English aristocracy, and the Great Depression. Here are some book suggestions to get you started.

Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey by Fiona Carnavon is a non-fiction account of Highclere Castle, where Downton Abbey was filmed, and its dramatic, true history written by the current Countess. Also available as an ebook.

Below Stairs by Margaret Powell shows, in vivid detail, just how hard those servants worked and how hard their life could be.

American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin. A lot of the English aristocracy fell into financial ruin while trying to maintain large estates. Many of them married their sons to rich American women in exchange for a title. This is the fictional story of one of those young women.

The Poppy Wife by Caroline Scott. The aftermath of World War I and the survivors struggling to come to terms with what they’ve witnessed.

If you’re looking to read a classic, Henry James and Edith Wharton are the gold standard. For modern/newer classics, try Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro about an English estate that is bought by a rich American and how the servants adapt or Atonement by Ian McEwan about how a wrong accusation reverberates through several lives for many years.

For mystery lovers, there are several good series to explore including the Below Stairs series by Jennifer Ashley (servants solving crimes), the Inspector Ian Rutledge series by Charles Todd (recently returned veteran of World War I who struggles with PTSD), the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear (young woman sets up her own private investigation agency just after World War I).

I’m going to read the first title in the Bess Crawford mystery series by Charles Todd, A Duty to the Dead. Bess is a British nurse serving in France during World War I and in this book, makes a promise to a dying soldier that leads her to a case of murder and intrigue. I’m looking forward to this! What will you be reading this month?

Usually at this point I remind you that there will be displays at each library with lots of title suggestions. However, it looks like we may not be open to the public for some time so instead I’ll remind you that you can still call the library and have a book held for you at the Fairmount drive up window. I also strongly urge you to take advantage of our free ebook service Overdrive which has thousands of titles available to read on your tablet or computer, including many of the titles mentioned here.

Until we meet again, stay safe and keep reading!

April Fool’s Day During the COVID-19 Crisis

Hello!

In the past I’ve written an April Fool’s post on the first of April, something silly and fun (the library rearranging  books by color, offering passes to skip-the-line for the I-74 bridge, adding a third floor to the Main library, etc) This year though, it feels like we’re already in the midst of a cosmic (and not at all funny) April Fool’s prank. So, instead of trying to fool you, I’m going to list some of the hopeful, heartwarming, fun things I’ve run across while we all work to get through this pandemic alone but together. Enjoy!

Jennifer Ehle, who starred in probably the best television adaptation of any Jane Austen novel (Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth) is reading Pride and Prejudice from home, one chapter a day on YouTube.

Missing sports? British sportscaster Andrew Cotter calls a race between his dogs eating supper – who will be victorious? Mabel or Olive? Extremely hilarious.

Sad to be missing out on lots of spring blooms? (I certainly am) Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison, Wisconsin is one of the premier public gardens in the United States (And it’s free!) Each day a staff member features the latest spring blooms on the garden’s Instagram stories (@olbrichgardens) Other public gardens with seasonal pictures include Chanticleer Gardens in Pennsylvania (@chanticleergarden) and the world famous Keukenhof Gardens near Amsterdam (@visitkeukenhof). It’s almost – not quite, but almost – as good as being there.

Yo-Yo Ma is sharing #songsofcomfort on Instagram and Twitter. He started out by playing Dvorak’s “Going Home”, a gorgeous piece of music beautifully suited to the cello. Others, both professional and amateur have also been contributing – check out the hashtag for lots of great music.

And don’t forget – the Davenport Library offers a huge range of online entertainment from ebooks and eaudiobooks (Libby), to British television favorites (Acorn) to digital magazines (rbDigital). And it’s all free! Check out our home page for links and more information.

What about you – what have you found to keep yourself entertained and inspired?

Online Reading Challenge – March Wrap

 

Hello Challenge Readers!

How was your March reading? Did you find something wonderful to read? Hopefully not anything too creepy (unless that’s what you like!)

As I said before, I’m not too interested in reading about serial killers so I passed on those and went for a straightforward murder. (Nothing creepy about that, right? ha!) I decided to read A Better Man by Louise Penny, a book that had been gifted to me and wow, it was great!

A catastrophic flood, a missing woman and tensions at work greet Chief Inspector Armand Gamache when he returns to the Sûreté du Québec (the national police force in Quebec, Canada) after serving a suspension in the 15th installment of Louise Penny’s popular series.

Gamache has been demoted and now his former second-in-command Jean-Guy Beauvoir is temporarily his supervisor – as well as being his son-on-law. Gamache had been Beauvoir’s mentor and the two share a close bond complicated now by their change in position and the fact the Beauvoir and his wife (Gamache’s daughter) will soon be moving to Paris. In addition, heavy rain and a sudden thaw have caused ice jams on the many rivers of Quebec, threatening dangerous flooding and diverting all personnel to cope with the national emergency. Into this chaos a father reports that his daughter is missing – she had been repeatedly abused by her husband and was desperate to escape and now she cannot be found. The father appeals to Gamache’s love for his own daughter – what would you do if it was her? – and Gamache is drawn into a complicated, twisted, emotional mystery.

This is the first novel by Louise Penny that I’ve read and boy am I hooked now. Penny is a masterful writer, conjuring up a cast of colorful characters in a beautiful setting (I desperately want to go to Quebec now!). It’s not sugar-sweet idyllic because people are, well, people, full of messy emotions  and always managing to get themselves tangled up in one situation or another. The mystery is interesting, but the heart of the novel is Gamache, his calm, wise counsel, his brilliant mind, his love for his family and his staff. Now I’m well on my way to reading the entire series from the beginning!

Now it’s your turn – what did you read for March?