North Korea Journal by Michael Palin

Michael Palin has taken us on his travels over the years.  We’ve gone with him as he’s circumnavigated the globe in 80 days, gone pole-to-pole, and explored the Himalayas.  This time he’s off to the DPRK, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, for a 15-day adventure with a small film crew and some preconceived notions of what he’ll find.

This small book is presented in journal form, his day-by-day activities documented and presented with a copious number of photographs.  Day 3:  Arrive at Pyongyang station.  Day 8:  A journey to the Demilitarized Zone.

On his travels he notes the ever-present images of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, painted in pictures or molded in bronze, always equal in size.  He hears music played in loud speakers sounding throughout a city, the soundtrack of their lives.  He sees Senior Citizen ladies in traditional dress dance “formally and carefully, as if in slow motion.”

But the places he goes are not the main message of North Korea Journal.  Palin strives to give us sense of the people he encounters along the way.  Their hesitance to engage with outsiders.  Their love for their Great Leaders.  He asks probing questions, and only sometimes embarrasses his hosts.

Online Reading Challenge – December

Here we go Challenge Readers! It’s the final month of the 2019 Online Reading Challenge! Are you ready for a strong finish to the year?

I think this month will be fun. And kind of a free-for-all because the topic is Friends and Family and well, that means the number of books that would qualify is nearly unlimited. Whether you define family as blood relations, step-, blended or the family you choose, these people are important and influence your life past, present and future. Here are a few titles to get you started thinking about what to read.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng – A placid, planned neighborhood in suburban Cleveland is disrupted and changed forever when an enigmatic single mother and her daughter move in, drawing the other families to them and sparking controversy and conflict.

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah – A Vietnam War vet moves his family to Alaska where he hopes the wide open spaces will calm his increasingly erratic behavior. Woefully unprepared for an Alaskan winter, the family soon learns that the real danger is from within.

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman – Falling under the category of “the family you choose” this lovely book shows how an oddball collection of neighbors from wildly varying backgrounds come together to support and celebrate each other through the multiple milestones of life. Highly recommended.

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese – Twin brothers who are orphaned at birth when their mother dies and their father abandons them, Marion and Shiva share a love of medicine but their love for the same woman tears them apart. When the past threatens Marion, he must turn to the father who abandoned him and the brother who betrayed him.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg – be sure to check the displays at each of the Davenport Library locations for lots more choices!

I’m planning on reading The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher. This is an older book that is listed as a favorite by many (I know someone who re-reads it every year!) Set in Cornwall, England, it is described as “a sweeping family drama” that centers around the fate of a beloved painting. I hope it lives up to all the great reviews!

Now it’s your turn – what will you be reading this month?

 

Online Reading Challenge – November Wrap-Up

Hello Readers!

How did your November reading go? Did you find a great book to read or movie to watch?

I struggled a bit this month. “Education” turned out to be a tougher subject to find interesting books than I had expected. That’s not to say there aren’t any books worth reading, just that I had trouble finding one that I wanted to read. I ended up choosing Looking for Alaska by John Green and, what can I say, I had some issues with it.

Looking for Alaska takes place in an exclusive boarding school in Alabama. Miles has never quite fit in at public school back home in Florida (his favorite hobby is collecting the last words of famous people), so he transfers to Culver Creek to seek “the great perhaps”. What he finds there is a collection of eccentric and independent thinkers that push his boundaries and sometimes endanger his life. Alaska Young – brilliant, beautiful, free-spirited, troubled – becomes the center of his world and her moods and flights of fancy dictate how Miles and the circle of friends around Alaska will experience each day. When tragedy strikes the consequences are far reaching and long lasting.

I think I may be too old and too cynical to have really enjoyed this book. It reminds me a bit of the experience of reading Catcher in the Rye; if you read it at the right point in your life, it’s mind blowing. If you read it too late, it seems self-indulgent and shallow. I wouldn’t call Looking for Alaska either self-indulgent or shallow (it deals with serious issues teens face today), but I had a hard time relating to the teens. Of course, I was never part of a “cool crowd” (more the “super-quiet-book-nerd never-do-anything-against-the-rules” crowd!) I found much of their behavior to be dangerous and was disturbed by their disregard for the privileges they had access to. Of course, there were several serious, underlying issues that at least in part explained their behavior but mostly I wanted to shake them and tell them to stop making stupid choices. (It’s tough to get old!!)

The writing, as to be expected from John Green, was beautiful and kept me reading when I might have given up. He can turn a phrase or describe an emotion with such care and skill with no extraneous clutter that it’s breathtaking. I found myself skimming chunks of the book but also repeatedly diving into passages that I would re-read again and again. My recommendation is to go read The Fault in Our Stars, also by John Green, and pass on Looking for Alaska, but your mileage my vary.

What about you? What was your November reading experience like?

Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

guest post by Wesley B

I feel sorry for my co-workers that had to catalogue Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth. How do you categorize a book that does all it can to resist labels and push boundaries? On the bright side, that means Gideon has something for nearly everyone: space travel for science fiction fans, magic for fantasy fanatics, skeletons and other undead abominations for horror enthusiasts, romance for – well, romance readers. The characters are primarily young adults, but the content and themes transcend the YA label. The cover and content are pulpy, but the prose is literary. There’s plenty of humor, but Muir treats her characters and their problems with the gravity they deserve. After all, the stakes are higher than life and death – they’re life and undeath.

The story is told from the perspective of the eponymous heroine, Gideon Nav, an indentured servant in the Ninth House. It’s Gideon you see on the striking cover, clad in all black, her face covered with skull paint and aviator shades, walking away, sword drawn, from an explosion of skeletons. Her fiery red coif gives the cover a splash of color; similarly, her incandescent personality lends levity to the novel’s gothic, often grotesque proceedings. The book’s opening line, the most memorable I’ve read this year, is a masterclass in narrative table-setting: “In the myriadic year of our lord — the ten thousandth year of the King Undying, the kindly Prince of Death! — Gideon Nav packed her sword, her shoes and her dirty magazines, and she escaped from the House of the Ninth.” This simple declarative sentence immediately introduced me to Gideon and her world, and had me dying to learn more about them. Even when I was finished reading, that desire stayed with me; unlike many of her fellow authors of genre fiction, Muir never gets bogged down in the expository weeds of worldbuilding, instead letting her colorful characters stay in the driver’s seat as the plot moves propulsively from one scene to the next.

Gideon is a sort of inverted Harry Potter figure, leaving behind a hostile home for a new life in a place filled with wonder, danger, and people who know far more about it than she does. Unlike the boy wizard, however, Gideon isn’t so much called to adventure as dragged on it against her will, when her lifelong frenemy Harrowhark, daughter of the Ninth House’s leaders, foils her escape attempt. In doing so, however, she strikes a bargain with Gideon: if she accompanies Harrow to the First House and serves as her cavalier (essentially a bodyguard/personal assistant), where the aforementioned King Undying (a God-Emperor who should feel familiar to Warhammer 40k fans) is holding tryouts for new Lyctors (basically immortal lieutenants with vast necromantic powers).

Upon arriving at the First House, Harrow and Gideon meet their counterparts from the other seven Houses. My main criticism of Gideon is that it’s difficult to keep track of a dozen-plus characters dumped in your lap all at once, especially when only a few of them are as interesting or well-developed as our heroines. Thankfully, in its second act the book turns into an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery, culling the cast significantly (plus there’s a handy list of dramatis personae at the front of the book). It’s during this section that Muir fleshes out her world’s magic system, one of my absolute favorite parts of the book. You’d think a book based entirely on necromancy wouldn’t be that varied in the magic department, but you’d be wrong – each House has its own special variety of death magic, from summoning skeletons to siphoning souls. What’s truly impressive, though, is that these differences in magic aren’t merely superficial. Instead, each necromancer’s style of magic reflects their personality.

In the third act, Muir gives readers the climactic action scenes and revelations of mysteries that we expect, and executes both with aplomb. Ultimately, however, what kept me reading was Gideon and Harrow. As they struggle to work together, they learn not just about the secrets of the First House, but about themselves as well. The ending is explosive and intimate, hilarious and heartbreaking, a tearjerker and a cliffhanger all in one. I can’t wait for the sequel to come out next year; in the meantime, I might have to re-read this one.

The Other Mrs. Miller by Allison Dickson

Do you ever have a feeling that people aren’t what they seem? That they are keeping something from you? This is the premise of Allison Dickson’s book The Other Mrs. Miller where a woman who hardly leaves her house becomes increasingly more suspicious of the people in her life.

The Other Mrs. Miller by Allison Dickson tells the story of two women watching each other and the consequences that follow.

Phoebe Miller hardly leaves her house. She doesn’t see the point. Living on a cul-de-sac affords her the opportunity to watch her neighbors in relative peace, so when a car starts showing up on a fairly regular basis outside of her house, she immediately becomes suspicious. Why does the driver keep showing up? What business could they possibly have on her cul-de-sac? Could they be wanting to get information out of her because of her family?

While Phoebe’s family may be infamous, Phoebe herself is uninteresting. She’s an unhappy housewife who has gained weight in the past couple years due to her love of ice cream and wine. Phoebe and her husband don’t get along very well with issues becoming more and more present every day. Not really knowing how to make things better with her husband, she keeps going on with her daily life knowing things will eventually work themselves out.

Phoebe is soon distracted when a new family moves in across the street. Drawn into their web, Phoebe finds herself wanting to know more about the Napiers: the doctor husband, the bubbly and energetic wife Vicki, and the handsome college-bound son Jake. Leaving her house to introduce herself to the new neighbors, Phoebe quickly finds the companionship she has been lacking with the Napiers. While she is enjoying having a new friend and is coming out of her shell more, Phoebe is growing more and more distracted from the things that she really should be paying attention to, like the car that’s been showing up outside of her house. Her life becomes more unpredictable, leading to a climax that will have readers on the edge of their seats.

This domestic thriller kept my attention from the beginning with secrets and plot twists popping up until the very end. Check out this book and let me know what you think in the comments!


This book is available in the following formats:

Well Met by Jen DeLuca

Have you ever been to a renaissance faire? I spent quite a few summers growing up going to the local faire with my family. I was fascinated that there were people who made this their life for the whole summer, but had other lives outside of the faire. Faires serve as ways to experience the past, but with the knowledge that you can go back to your regular present life!

Well Met by Jen DeLuca takes the concept of past vs. present and runs with it. Willow Creek, Maryland is a small town where everyone knows everyone else. Trying to keep anything quiet can be pretty difficult, but there are charms to living in such a small area. Emily is having a hard time seeing the positives, but she’s working on it. Emily moved her entire life to Willow Creek to help her sister recover from a bad accident. Being dropped into this new life, she works hard to alleviate any stress on her sister by making lists to navigate her new life. Instead of working two jobs, Emily spends her days running her sister to appointments and chauffeuring her niece around.

Driving her niece to the high school one day, Emily soon finds herself volunteering for the local Renaissance Faire so that her niece can participate. Emily bumps into Simon, an irritating schoolteacher who is in charge of the volunteers. While they don’t initially get along, Emily is forced to keep working with Simon since the faire is a huge part of his family. The faire is very important to Simon and Emily’s joking approach to the whole experience, plus her insistence that some aspects of faire should change, only further work to irk and anger Simon.

Once faire begins however, Simon slips into a new persona. Gone is the stuffy English teacher and in his place lives a completely new, and likeable, person. This new Simon flirts openly with Emily as she works at the tavern in her revealing wench outfit. The drastic difference between the two confuses Emily. Is the attraction she’s feeling towards Simon at the faire real? Or is it just part of their characters, the part of faire that Simon is always telling them that they need to portray?

Emily is more confused than ever as she works to figure out what she is going to do after the summer is over and her sister has recovered from her accident. She was only supposed to stay in Willow Creek until her sister recovered, but the more time she spends in the community, and the more she gets to know Simon, the more Emily is thinking that she might want to make a permanent home in Willow Creek. But should she? What about Simon? Where will she stay? Will everyone in Willow Creek grow to accept her?

The Nanny by Gilly Macmillan

Growing up, we seldom had babysitters, let alone a full-time live-in nanny, so I was always fascinated when authors would weave stories of characters who grew up with nannies. I relived this fascination when I picked up Gilly Macmillan’s newest book, The Nanny. This book tells the story of one nanny’s power over an entire family and their struggle to find out the truth.

The Nanny by Gilly Macmillan drops readers right into the world of Jocelyn Holt. Told in alternating points of view, readers learn about the lives of Jocelyn Holt and her family as Jocelyn makes the trip back home. Having to return to the Lake Hall estate after the death of her husband, Jo is not happy to be dropped back into a life that doesn’t seem to have changed since she left. Her childhood wasn’t all that bad, that is before nanny Hannah left. Hannah and Jo were inseparable up until the summer of 1988 when Hannah left without a trace, leaving seven-year-old Jocelyn devastated and with no one to confide in.

Left with no answers as to where Hannah went, Jocelyn’s childhood at Lake Hall with her parents became more troubled. She grew up bitter and distant towards her parents, mostly to her mother, whom she blamed for Hannah’s abrupt departure. As soon as she was able to, Jo left Lake Hall and her parents’ stuffy aristocratic life behind.

Thirty years later, Jo finds herself back at Lake Hall with her young daughter in tow after the sudden and unexpected death of her husband. With nowhere else to turn, Jo is forced to confront and rebuild the troubled relationship she has with her mother. When Jo’s daughter and her mother start growing closer, she’s unsure whether or not this is a good thing. Right as the three reach a somewhat truce, human remains are found in a lake on the Lake Hall estate which makes Jo question if the events that she remembers from her childhood are actually true.

In the aftermath of this shocking discovery, an unexpected visitor shows up at Lake Hall. Jo and her mother are left reeling yet again as the identity of this visitor is revealed to be someone it can’t possibly be. Not finding any satisfactory answers, Jo digs into her past to figure out the truth surrounding her nanny’s disappearance, who her nanny really was, and what her mother has been hiding for over thirty years.


This book is also available in the following formats:

Travel Talk – Armchair Traveler

This month in Travel Talk we’re going to explore travel books. I’m not talking about those giant coffee table books that are filled with artsy, professional photography (although those can be fun too). I’m talking about the books that you can settle down with and read, follow someone into a different culture or country and vicariously experience their adventures. These are the kind of books that will give you travel fever, all from the comfort of your armchair. Here are a few of my favorites.

Miles from Nowhere by Barbara Savage. This is the book that really hit me with the travel bug, not only to see new places, but that you didn’t have to be rich and fancy to go places. Barbara and her husband go on an around-the-world bicycle trip that is full of highs, lows and some scary moments. The writing style is fun and engaging and you’ll find it nearly impossible to put down. A great eye-opener into many different cultures and attitudes. Highly recommended. (Just don’t read the back of the book until after you finish)

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. Is there anyone that hasn’t read this book yet? Come on – it’s easily one of the funniest books I’ve ever read! Although the chapter on bears might scare you into never camping (or walking in the woods)! Bryson and his friend Katz undertake hiking the Appalachian Trail, underestimating it’s difficulty and the commitment required. Katz is extremely casual in his approach; Bryson is his usual keenly observant, riotously irreverent self and comes away from his experience with a new appreciation of the land and nature. Highly recommended.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed. After making several poor life decisions, Strayed gets the crazy idea to walk the Pacific Crest Trail which runs from Mexico to Canada. It’s a long, rigorous hike and Cheryl is not prepared, but she sticks with it and along the way she finds herself. The long days of isolation and forced self-reliance help her find a reserve of strength within herself that she had never known, cleared her mind, settled her emotions and helped set her priorities. An inspiring story of growth and renewal.

These are all memoirs, but a great armchair travel books doesn’t have to be non-fiction. Any novel that sets you in a different place can give you wanderlust; for me that’s just about anything set in Paris or London or on the prairies and mountains of America.

What about you – what have you read that makes you want to dust off your suitcase? Let us know in the comments!

That’s What Frenemies Are For by Sophie Littlefield and Lauren Gershell

Making friends as an adult is difficult. Sophie Littlefield and Lauren Gershell talk about the delicate balance between friends and enemies, as well as the different lengths that people are willing to do to in order to make friends in their newest book, That’s What Frenemies Are For. Hidden motives abound for all in this novel that grabs you by your private school, Manhattan socialite education and refuses to let go.

That’s What Frenemies Are For by Sophie Littlefield and Lauren Gershell talks about how easily influence and cache in different groups can change as readers follow the life of a Manhattan socialite who finds the next biggest craze in the form of a peppy spin instructor and an underperforming fitness studio. Her decision to rehabilitate the studio and the instructor in order to impress her friends and get back her social cache proves to turn into more than she can handle.

Julia Summers has it all: two children who love her, an adoring husband with a successful job, an apartment in the city, and a house in the Hamptons. Having finally made it to the top of her friend group, Julia influences almost everything the group does. Nothing happens without her approval or without her knowing about it. As a result, Julia is stunned when she finds others in her friend group suddenly vying for her position of power and cutting her out of decisions. When everyone starts to head to the Hamptons for the summer, Julia’s family is stuck in the city when catastrophe hits their Hamptons’ house.

Stuck in the city for the summer, Julia is desperate to reinvent herself before her friends come back. Looking for the newest fad, Julia finds Flame. Flame is the biggest new elite fitness craze that has the possibility to be even better if they just changed a few things. While going to Flame, Julia takes classes from Tatum, a giggly, energetic instructor who Julia decides to transform in the guise of improving Flame’s profit margin and helping to get the word out about the business.

Julia takes on the task to overhaul Flame and Tatum, but in a sneaky way that she hopes isn’t completely obvious to everyone around her. Things slowly start to spiral out of Julia’s control when she discovers that Tatum isn’t as docile as she initially thought. Julia’s comeback doesn’t go as expected and Tatum starts to take over everything herself.

With Julia’s relationships with her friends in turmoil, Julia turns to her family for comfort. Much to her surprise, her husband’s business goes belly up in a most unexpected way. Left with almost no support system and friends who have completely turned their backs on her, Julia has to rethink everything that she had previously held so dear. What does she really want out of life? What is most important to her? Is her perfect life worth it?

Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators by Ronan Farrow

guest post by Lexie R

I am only slightly embarrassed to admit that when I need a break from the serious news of the day, I turn to celebrity gossip. I love reading about the secret inner-workings of the entertainment industry, the behind-the-scenes machinations that make the celebrity machine look so effortless, and the blind items about who is misbehaving. So when journalists like Jodi Kantor, Megan Twohey, and Ronan Farrow broke the news about accusations of producer Harvey Weinstein’s decades of abusing women, I thought to myself, “I’ve read about this on blind items sites a hundred times, how is it that none of these people knew about this?” Well, as is made clear in Ronan Farrow’s gripping new book Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators, it sure seems like a whole lot of people did, in fact, know.

Catch and Kill takes the reader through the process of how Farrow investigated what was previously only whispered about: claims that mega-producer Harvey Weinstein routinely harassed and abused women for decades. If you were a “Friend of Harvey”, you made it in the entertainment industry; if you weren’t, you didn’t. For a non-fiction work that everyone knows the ending to, I found Farrow’s account to be breathless, fast-pasted, and engaging. Though I had read Farrow’s reporting of the accusations against Weinstein, there was a lot I didn’t know about how the story was investigated and all the hurdles Farrow faced in trying to report it. What was most startling was Farrow’s account of NBC executives who, after months of reporting and collecting firsthand accounts and even an audio recording of Weinstein admitting to an assault, suddenly wanted him to stop talking to sources and drop the story. This part of the story is still ongoing, with NBC disputing Farrow’s claims and alleging that he had no story until he went to The New Yorker and published it a month later.

One of the more thriller-esque parts of the book was the way he weaved in details about Weinstein apparently hiring an Israeli intelligence agency to follow Farrow and gather information on him in an effort to smear his reputation. Every few chapters or so we get a glimpse of two men sitting outside Farrow’s home in a silver Nissan or just so happening to be at the same restaurant as him, and later the precautions Farrow had to take when it because clear that he was in fact being followed and his phone was being targeted. But even in such serious parts of the book Farrow managed to include some levity; my favorite of these such moments was the revelation that the private investigators assigned to tail Farrow’s boyfriend Jon Lovett (of podcasts Pod Save America and Lovett or Leave It) gave up because Lovett’s routine was too boring (to which Jon replied “I’m interesting!…I went to an escape room!”)

All throughout the book, Farrow makes it clear that though he received many acclaims for bringing this information to light, the real heroes of story are the women who risked everything to come forward and speak up about what had been done to them. Many of these women held onto their stories for years because they had seen others lose their careers after trying to speak up; for them to do so at this time was courageous and Farrow is quick to point that out at every turn.

This is a great read if you’re interested in the incredibly thorough process of reporting, real-life espionage, and demolishing institutions that empower and encourage abusers. Highly recommended.