Online Reading Challenge – May

Hello again Fellow Readers!

Today we launch a new month of the Online Reading Challenge with books that focus on racial injustice, advocacy and civil rights. These aren’t necessarily “fun” reads, but they’re powerful, moving and important reads.

Our main title is Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. A powerful true story about the potential for mercy to redeem us, and a clarion call to fix our broken system of justice—from one of the most brilliant and influential lawyers of our time. Bryan Stevenson was a young lawyer when he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending those most desperate and in need: the poor, the wrongly condemned, and women and children trapped in the farthest reaches of our criminal justice system. One of his first cases was that of Walter McMillian who was sentenced to die for a notorious murder he insisted he didn’t commit. The case drew Bryan into a tangle of conspiracy, political machination, and legal brinksmanship—and transformed his understanding of mercy and justice forever. Just Mercy is at once an unforgettable account of an idealistic, gifted young lawyer’s coming of age, a moving window into the lives of those he has defended, and an inspiring argument for compassion in the pursuit of true justice.

Also available as an e-book and an e-audiobook.

Also in this month’s Book Flight:

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. Newlyweds Celestial and Roy are the embodiment of both the American Dream and the New South. He is a young executive and she is an artist on the brink of an exciting career. But as they settle into the routine of their life together, they are ripped apart by circumstances neither could have imagined. Roy is arrested and sentenced to twelve years for a crime Celestial knows he didn’t commit. Though fiercely independent, Celestial finds herself bereft and unmoored, taking comfort in Andre, her childhood friend, and best man at their wedding. As Roy’s time in prison passes, she is unable to hold on to the love that has been her center. After five years, Roy’s conviction is suddenly overturned, and he returns to Atlanta ready to resume their life together.

Also available in Large Print, as an e-book and an e-audiobook.

The Blood of Emmett Till by Timothy Tyson. In 1955, white men in the Mississippi Delta lynched a fourteen-year-old from Chicago named Emmett Till. His murder was part of a wave of white terrorism in the wake of the 1954 Supreme Court decision that declared public school segregation unconstitutional. The national coalition organized to protest the Till lynching became the foundation of the modern civil rights movement. Only weeks later, Rosa Parks thought about young Emmett as she refused to move to the back of a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Five years later, the Emmett Till generation, forever marked by the vicious killing of a boy their own age, launched sit-in campaigns that turned the struggle into a mass movement. But what actually happened to Emmett Till — not the icon of injustice but the flesh-and-blood boy? Part detective story, part political history, cultural scholar Timothy Tyson draws on a wealth of new evidence, including the only interview ever given by Carolyn Bryant, the white woman in whose name Till was killed.

Also available in Large Print.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. A gripping, heart-wrenching, and wholly remarkable tale of coming-of-age in a South poisoned by virulent prejudice, it views a world of great beauty and savage inequities through the eyes of a young girl, as her father – a crusading local lawyer – risks everything to defend a black man unjustly accused of a terrible crime.

Be sure to stop by one of the Davenport library locations for displays with these and many more titles!

Online Reading Challenge – April Wrap-Up

Challengers! How was your month? Did you read one of the books from our April Book Flight?

The main title this month was The Alice Network by Kate Quinn.  I loved this book. I read it several years ago shortly after it was published and quickly became completely immersed in the historic setting and the work of these brave women.

This is a book about two wars, of the price paid both by those who died and those who survived, of sisterhood and loyalty and immeasurable bravery.

Before reading this I was unaware of the extent of the spy network whose work was instrumental in fighting World War I, and I had no idea that so many women sacrificed so much working behind enemy lines. There really was an “Alice Network” made up of women who worked in France, gathering information and passing it along to the Allies. This work was incredibly dangerous since they often had to pose as neutral and even supportive of the Germans, usually in close contact, posing as waitresses, store clerks and secretaries and sometimes becoming their lovers, all to gather information.

Although the scenes set during World War I were by far the most riveting, I also enjoyed the post-World War II storyline. The parallels between the wars, especially the brutality and suffering, were eerily similar. And again, it brought to light a true story from the Second Wrold War that I had never heard, that of the lost village of Oradour-sur-Glane in France.

What did you think about the women that worked as spies from any of our Book Flight books? Were you, like me, astonished by their sheer courage, their ability to overcome the fear of torture and death to complete a mission and to stay cool under pressure? What do you think motivated them – was it loyalty to a family member or loved one, or was it patriotism for a country? And what about their enemies, were they simply pure evil, or were they more complex?

Be sure to share your thoughts on this month’s Book Flight in the comments below!

 

Our Woman in Moscow by Beatriz Williams

At the height of the Cold War, with fears running high and no one can be trusted, a woman must make a risky journey into the Soviet Union to save her sister in Our Woman in Moscow by Beatriz Williams.

Ruth Macallister hasn’t spoken to her sister Iris since 1940, when a serious disagreement forced them to part on difficult terms. Ruth leaves for the United States while Ruth remains in a Europe to stay with a US Embassy official, Sasha Digby, whom she has fallen in love with. Hurt feelings, the war and distance prevents reconciliation. When Iris, her husband and their children disappear in 1948 and it’s discovered that Sasha has been spying for the Soviet Union, Ruth doesn’t know if they’ve defected or been eliminated by the Soviets. With no word she carries on with her life as a successful career woman in New York and puts that part of her life behind her.

The past is brought back in full force when in 1952, out of the blue, Iris sends Ruth a postcard that appears to be a distress signal. Within days, Ruth has joined a daring plot to rescue her sister when she poses as the wife of Sumner Fox, an American counterintelligence agent. Together they fly to Moscow, where Ruth sees Iris again for the first time in 12 years.

What follows is a tense, emotional and dangerous flight from the Soviet Union in a precarious dash for freedom. There are plot twists, flashbacks to the past, the revealing of secrets all bound by the fierce love between sisters.

This is a great read full of intrigue and hold-your-breath moments. If you are following the Online Reading Challenge this year, this book is one of the alternate titles for the April Book Flight,  which explores women spies, intelligence work and sacrifice.

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

This gem of a book is a compelling combination of hope and tragedy, of sacrifice and friendship, of loyalty and brilliant  intelligence and of trust and love in Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein.

Maddie is a working class girl who dreams of becoming a pilot. “Verity” is  casually wealthy and carefree. Despite their very different backgrounds, they become fast friends, creating  an unbreakable bond that strengthens and deepens as they train to be spies in World War II.

In 1943 the two women are to sent to war-torn France on a spy mission. However, their plane crashes behind enemy lines; “Verity” is captured by the Gestapo while the Maddie is left for dead. The French Resistance is able to help Maddie and she begins searching, against all hope, for “Verity”.

Meanwhile, “Verity” is being tortured by the Nazi’s for information. After horrible pain and suffering, she agrees to write out her confession which she promises will provide information on the Allies and their plans. This is where the book opens, with “Verity’s” confession except that she is taking her time, writing in detail about her friendship with Maddie and other stories unrelated to the war, with just enough information sprinkled throughout that the Germans allow her to continue.

This book is often heartbreaking, but it also has a lot of humor and even joy. The friendship gives both women, even when they’re apart, great strength and perseverance. And the ending holds a brilliant twist. Highly recommended.

If you are joining us for the 2022 Online Reading Challenge, this title works perfectly with our April theme of women spies, intelligence work and sacrifice.

Online Reading Challenge – April

Welcome Readers!

It’s time for a new Online Reading Challenge assignment! Our theme is female spies, intelligence work and sacrifice. There are some brilliant books to explore this month, covering spycraft from World War I through the Cold War. I highly recommend The Alice Network and Code Name Verity, two of my favorite books, and I also recommend Our Woman in Moscow.

This month’s main title is The Alice Network by Kate Quinn. In 1915, Eve Gardiner burns to join the fight against the Germans and unexpectedly gets her chance to serve when she’s recruited to work as a spy for the English. Sent into enemy-occupied France during The Great War, she’s trained by the mesmerizing Lili, the “Queen of Spies”, who manages a vast network of secret agents, right under the enemy’s nose. Thirty years later, haunted by the betrayal that ultimately tore apart the Alice Network, Eve spends her days drunk and secluded in her crumbling London house until a young American barges in uttering a name Eve hasn’t heard in decades, and launching them both on a mission to find the truth … no matter where it leads.

This title is also available as an e-book and an e-audiobook.

Alternate titles include: Code Girls: the untold story of the American women code breakers of World War II by Liza Mundy. This documents the contributions of more than ten thousand American women who served as codebreakers during World War II, detailing how their efforts shortened the war, saved countless lives, and enabled their subsequent careers.

Our Woman in Moscow by Beatriz Williams. Autumn, 1948: Iris Digby, her American diplomat husband Sasha, and their two children vanish from London. Were they eliminated by the Soviet intelligence service? Or have the Digbys defected to Moscow with a trove of the West’s most vital secrets? Four years later Ruth Macallister receives a postcard from Iris, the twin sister she hasn’t seen since their catastrophic parting in Rome in the summer of 1940. Now Ruth is on her way to Moscow, posing as the wife of counterintelligence agent Sumner Fox in a precarious plot to extract the Digbys from behind the Iron Curtain.

This title is also available in Large Print and as an e-book.

American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson. It’s 1986, the heart of the Cold War, and Marie Mitchell is an intelligence officer with the FBI. She’s brilliant, but she’s also a young black woman working in an old boys’ club. Her career has stalled out, so when she’s given the opportunity to join a shadowy task force aimed at undermining Thomas Sankara, the charismatic revolutionary president of Burkina Faso whose Communist ideology has made him a target for American intervention, she says yes. In the year that follows, Marie will observe Sankara, seduce him, and ultimately have a hand in the coup that will bring him down. But doing so will change everything she believes about what it means to be a spy, a lover, a sister, and a good American.

This title is also available as an e-audiobook.

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. In 1943, a British fighter plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France and the survivor tells a tale of friendship, war, espionage, and great courage as she relates what she must to survive while keeping secret all that she can.

This title is also available as a Book on CD and as an e-book.

Check for these titles and more featured in displays at each of the Davenport Library buildings!

Online Reading Challenge – March Wrap-Up

Hello Fellow Readers!

How did your reading go this month? Did you read our main title, Station Eleven, or did you find something else to read?

Station Eleven is one of my favorite books, but it can be difficult to read at times. The fear, the isolation, the unrelenting unknown can sometimes cut a little too close to what we went through with Covid. Fortunately, Covid was not quite as deadly or as fast acting (although close enough) to the flu that swept through the population in Station Eleven and while our world has not changed as dramatically as it did in the book, it is different from what was before.

One thing I love about Station Eleven is the traveling band of actors and musicians, spreading a little bit of culture and beauty, that despite all of the loss and heartbreak, humans crave something more. (The quote from Star Trek that Mandel uses reflects this beautifully – “survival is not enough”) The traveling band provides some relief, a sense of community and ties to a past that is gone forever. I also liked how the passage of time after their pandemic is shown, how the “before” time slowly become stories and legends – it made me wonder about our history and how much of it has faded and shifted over time.

In the end I found Station Eleven to be full of hope – that good still exists, that humans can adapt and move forward, that even at the end of the world, there is reason to carry on.

How did you feel about the book you read this month? Was there a theme of fear and isolation in, but also optimism for the future? Or were people too burdened by grief and heartbreak? How do the worlds in each book look different from before and after? What are the lasting affects on the survivors? Has your thinking about the past and how stories are remembered changed? How are memories an imperfect record of the past, but also powerful reminders?

Let us know in the comments what you thought of this month’s reading challenge!

Online Reading Challenge – March

Hello Fellow Readers!

It’s time for a new Book Flight! This month our books focus on pandemics and how individuals react to a post-pandemic world. There is exploration of what was lost and how to move forward, the search for answers and cures and basic survival. They are not without hope though, as the protagonists in each title grow and change and even thrive.

Pandemics are not new to human history with the bubonic plague and the 1918 influenza being two of the most notable. Because we are still recovering from COVID-19, some of the subject matter may be triggering. Please read with caution!

This month’s main title is Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel. Written before 2020 and the arrival of COVID-19, it nevertheless has several eerie similarities.

One snowy night Arthur Leander, a famous actor, has a heart attack onstage during a production. Jeevan Chaudhary, is in the audience and leaps to his aid. A child actress named Kirsten Raymonde watches in horror as Jeevan performs CPR, pumping Arthur’s chest as the curtain drops, but Arthur is dead. That same night, as Jeevan walks home from the theater, a terrible flu begins to spread. Hospitals are flooded and Jeevan and his brother barricade themselves inside as life disintegrates outside. This novel charts the strange twists of fate that connect five people: the actor, the man who tried to save him, the actor’s first wife, his oldest friend, and a young actress with the Traveling Symphony, caught in the crosshairs of a dangerous self-proclaimed prophet.

This book is also available as an e-book on Libby.


Alternate titles are: Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

This gripping historical novel is based on the true story of Eyam, the “Plague Village,” in the rugged mountain spine of England. In 1666, a tainted bolt of cloth from London carries bubonic infection to this isolated settlement of shepherds and lead miners. A visionary young preacher convinces the villagers to seal themselves off in a deadly quarantine to prevent the spread of disease. The story is told through the eyes of eighteen-year-old Anna Frith, the vicar’s maid, as she confronts the loss of her family, the disintegration of her community, and the lure of a dangerous and illicit love. As the death toll rises and people turn from prayers and herbal cures to sorcery and murderous witch-hunting, Anna emerges as an unlikely and courageous heroine in the village’s desperate fight to save itself.

Also available as an e-book on Libby.

Ghost Map by Steven Johnson

A chronicle of Victorian London’s worst cholera outbreak traces the day-by-day efforts of Dr. John Snow, who put his own life on the line in his efforts to prove his previously dismissed contagion theory about how the epidemic was spreading.

As Bright as Heaven by Susan Meissner

In 1918, Philadelphia was a city teeming with promise. Even as its young men went off to fight in the Great War, there were opportunities for a fresh start on its cobblestone streets. Into this bustling town, came Pauline Bright and her husband, filled with hope that they could now give their three daughters a chance at a better life. Their dreams are short-lived. Just months after they arrive, the Spanish Flu reaches the shores of America. As the pandemic claims more than twelve thousand victims in their adopted city, they find their lives left with a world that looks nothing like the one they knew. But even as they lose loved ones, they take in a baby orphaned by the disease who becomes their single source of hope. Amidst the tragedy and challenges that surround them, they learn what they cannot live without–and what they are willing to do about it.

Also available in Large Print and as an e-book on Libby.

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

A novel set in 1918 Dublin offers a three-day look at a maternity ward during the height of the Great Flu pandemic. In an Ireland doubly ravaged by war and disease, Nurse Julia Power works at an understaffed hospital in the city center, where expectant mothers who have fallen sick are quarantined into a separate ward to keep the plague at bay. Into Julia’s regimented world step two outsiders, a woman doctor who is a rumored Rebel, and a teenage girl, Bridie, procured by the nuns from their orphanage as an extra set of hands.
Also available as an e-book and an e-audio book, both on Libby.
I actually read Station Eleven shortly after it was published in 2015 (and I loved it – highly recommended) so I’m going to read As Bright as Heaven for this month’s challenge. I think this will be an interesting and eye-opening month of reading!

Online Reading Challenge – February Wrap-Up

Hello Challenge Readers!

How did your February reading go? Did you enjoy your book of choice? Or did you pass on this month’s Book Flight?

Our main title for February was A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. This is one of my favorite books – I read it a few months ago and can’t say enough good things about it. The writing, the plot, the building of tension, the twist at the end, the characters, all work together to create something beautiful and intricate, heartbreaking yet hopeful.

In A Gentleman in Moscow,  Count Alexander Rostov is accused of writing subversive essays against the Bolshevik government and is sentenced to house arrest in 1922. Striped of his wealth and all but a few possessions, Rostov now lives in an attic room of the luxurious Metropol, a grand hotel situated across from the Kremlin. It is from here that Rostov witnesses some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history.

This brief overview makes the book seem dark and depressing but in fact, it is filled with humor, fascinating characters and people enjoying life no matter the challenges. I found that this was an optimistic and uplifting book and enjoyed it immensely.

Since I had already read the main selection, I read one of the alternatives, The Martian by Andy Weir. Set in the future, a group of astronauts are exploring the surface of Mars. An unexpected, violent storm forces the astronauts race to their ship.  In the midst of the chaos the crew believes that one of the astronauts, Mark Watney, has died. Barely escaping, they leave the planet and begin their return trip to Earth. However, Mark is very much alive. He now faces nearly impossible odds and must use ingenuity, skill and grim determination to keep himself fed, sheltered and safe while somehow figuring out how to let everyone back on Earth that he is here and he is alive.

I really enjoyed this book. Watching Mark figure out how to grow his own food, survive the harsh Martian climate and communicate with Earth was fascinating. I have read some comments that the science in this book isn’t always accurate, but I think that misses the point. What I saw was someone that didn’t give up, that was constantly thinking outside the box and making the best of a terrible situation. There’s quite a bit of humor too, and lots of tension that makes it difficult to put the book down! An excellent read.

February’s theme was of isolation and resilience. In all four of the books from the “flight”, the protagonist becomes isolated, either voluntarily or forced by circumstance. How did they react to their isolation? Each had to find new depths within themselves to survive – did they simply survive or were they able to thrive and grow? What, if any, pieces of their past do they have to confront? How are they different from the person at the beginning of each book, to the person they’ve become by the end of the book?

I was struck by the resilience and optimism of the main character in each of these books, how difficulties were turned into opportunities and how each learns both practical lessons and about themselves when problems arise, how isolation forces them to rely on themselves and creates clarity and empowerment.

How did you feel about this month’s reading? Let us know in the comments!

Online Reading Challenge – February

It’s time for our February Book Flight!

This month our themes are isolation and resilience and the main book is A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles.

In 1922, Count Alexander Rostov is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, and is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. Rostov, an indomitable man of erudition and wit, has never worked a day in his life, and must now live in an attic room while some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history are unfolding outside the hotel’s doors. Unexpectedly, his reduced circumstances provide him entry into a much larger world of emotional discovery.

Brimming with humor, a glittering cast of characters, and one beautifully rendered scene after another, this singular novel casts a spell as it relates the count’s endeavor to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be a man of purpose.

Also available on Libby as an e-book and as an e-audiobook.

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The alternate titles are: Wild by Cheryl Strayed

At twenty-two, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything in the wake of her mother’s death, her family scattered and her own marriage was soon destroyed. Four years later, with nothing more to lose, she made the most impulsive decision of her life. With no experience or training, driven only by blind will, she would hike more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State–and she would do it alone. Told with suspense and style, sparkling with warmth and humor, Wild powerfully captures the terrors and pleasures of one young woman forging ahead against all odds on a journey that maddened, strengthened, and ultimately healed her. 

Also available on Libby as an e-book.

The Martian by Andy Weir

Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first people to walk on Mars. Now, he’s sure he’ll be the first person to die there. After a dust storm nearly kills him and forces his crew to evacuate while thinking him dead, Mark finds himself stranded and completely alone with no way to even signal Earth that he’s alive–and even if he could get word out, his supplies would be gone long before a rescue could arrive. Chances are, though, he won’t have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment, or plain-old ‘human error’ are much more likely to kill him first. But Mark isn’t ready to give up yet. Drawing on his ingenuity, his engineering skills–and a relentless, dogged refusal to quit–he steadfastly confronts one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after the next. Will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?

Also available on Libby as an e-book.

Walden by David Henry Thoreau.

Walden  is the history of Thoreau’s visit to Walden Pond. Thoreau, stirred by the philosophy of the transcendentalists, used the sojourn as an experiment in self reliance and minimalism “so as to “live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Walden stresses the significance of self-reliance, solitude, meditation, and nature in rising above the the life of quiet desperation lived by most people.  Walden is a moving treatise on the importance distancing oneself from the consumerism of modern Western society and embracing nature in its place.

Also available on Libby as an e-book.


I read A Gentleman in Moscow a few months ago and absolutely loved it. The writing style is beautiful, clever and graceful and always engaging. The characters, especially Count Rostov, are complex and delightful and the view of Russian history, seen through the attic window of a grand hotel is mesmerizing and eye-opening. Do not pass on this book!

I am planning on reading an alternate title, The Martian and, if time allows, Wild. What about you – what are your plans for February reading?

Online Reading Challenge – January Wrap-Up

Hello Challenge Readers!

How did the first Book Flight reading challenge work for you? Did you read the main title or one of the alternates? Or did you find something else that might fit into this month’s theme of belonging, connection and found family?

I read the main title, The Orphan Train by Christina Kline and enjoyed a look into this unique time in our history when children that had been orphaned or abandoned were sent west by train where they would (hopefully) be taken in by foster families. The intention was good – saving children from a grim existence in crowded conditions in the cities to the clean, open air of the country – but the results were not always positive. Many children were seen as free labor to work in the fields or as servants in the house, and were mistreated and abused. Many were separated from siblings and friends, and forced to enter a new, unknown life alone.

The Orphan Train is the story of one of these orphans, Vivian Daly. She has recently immigrated from Ireland with her parents and sister, but her parents have died and her sister is lost after a fire in their tenement. At 10 years old, she is placed on an “orphan train”, leaving New York City for Minnesota and an uncertain future. There she suffers hardships, but also eventually finds her place in the world.

I was struck by Vivian’s courage as she is forced to leave everything she knows at such a young age. Watching her struggle with and overcome horrible situations can be heartbreaking. Vivian’s reaction is to carefully build walls around her heart. Eventually she is able to carve out a happy life, although it may not have been the life she once wished for.

In comparing this title to the others in this month’s Book Flight (Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano, Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens and A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman), all of the main characters are alone and struggling to find their way, and in each, in one way or another, they find people and reasons to live. If you’ve read any of the books, how did you feel about the main character’s coping mechanism? Did they isolate and protect themselves, or did they reach out – however reluctantly – to others? How did their experiences influence how they treated others? How did they move beyond past traumas, or did those memories haunt them? In The Orphan Train, Vivian calls them “ghosts”. Did the characters use past memories as comfort, or as motivation to move on? In each of these titles, there is a strong theme of reaching out to others and connection, but there is also a common thread of being forced to leave something beloved behind. This letting go can be wrenching – how did the characters cope – or not cope – with these losses?

Be sure to leave any thoughts you have about this month’s reading in the comments!