Online Reading Challenge – October

Hello! Welcome to the October edition of the Online Reading Challenge!

This month our focus author is Philippa Gregory!

Gregory is best known for historical fiction, especially novels set in England during the Plantagenet and Tudor eras. This is a period of time that is especially ripe for novelists – Henry and his multiple wives, the religious wars, the constant struggle for the crown and the lives of powerful and important people. Gregory’s books usually look at these turbulent times from a woman’s point-of-view. Often dismissed or misunderstood, the women have a different understanding of what actually happened beyond historical dates and famous battles.

While Gregory follows historical timelines, she sometimes speculates with alternative theories of what actually happened behind closed doors. This makes for fascinating and interesting reading, but remember to read these as fiction, not irrefutable fact!

Gregory’s Tudor series is probably her most popular, following each of Henry the VIII’s wives. I especially liked The Other Boleyn Girl which is told from the point-of-view of Anne Boleyn’s sister, who had been Henry’s mistress before he married Anne (so tangled!) Mary Boleyn was a real person who bore Henry two children, but was set aside when his interest turned to Anne.

If you’ve read everything by Gregory or would like to try another author, there are some very good ones to check out including Hilary Mantel, Sharon Kay Penman, Allison Weir and Tracy Chevalier.  If you prefer mysteries you might try the Shardlake mystery series by C.J. Sansom or hunt down The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey. It’s an older book that attempts to solve the mystery of the Princes in the Tower; it’s very good and well worth borrowing. And if you want something a little lighter and lots of fun, I highly recommend My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand, an alternate history of Lady Jane Grey that is simply delightful.

Of course, you can choose to read a historical novel from any time period or country you wish – be the boss of your online book club!

I am planning on reading A Perilous Alliance by Fiona Buckley, one from her Ursula Blanchard mystery series. Ursula is distantly related to Queen Elizabeth and helps the Queen’s advisors with some spying and occasional detective work.

Now it’s your turn – what will you be reading in October?

 

The Last Bookshop in London by Madeline Martin

“Books are what have brought us together. A love of the stories within, the adventures they take us on, their glorious distraction in a time of strife.”

Published just this past April, The Last Bookshop in London by Madeline Martin is a historical fiction novel set during World War II, offering a candid glimpse into life in London during the Blitz. While I have read several excellent novels in this time period before (as I’m sure you have, too!) , I don’t recall one exclusively focusing on the Blitz in London, so this title was a unique perspective I had not yet afforded!

After losing her mother and essentially being disowned by her uncle in a rural town in England, Grace and her best friend, Viv, journey to London to live with her mother’s best friend. While both women had long dreamed of coming to London, neither expected it to happen forcibly, let alone on the brink of a second great war. While Viv quickly finds a job at the glamorous Harrods, Grace is offered a position at a local bookshop which, as someone who didn’t read, was a less-than-ideal assignment. With the intention of working just six months to gain a letter of recommendation to find a better position, Grace begins working in a disheveled, dusty, and dingy bookstore with a seemingly irritable owner who barely tolerates her presence.

As rumblings of the war draw closer to home, however, Grace slowly finds herself becoming more and more committed and interested in her work at the bookshop. This is in no small part due to George Anderson, a particularly attractive and frequent patron who shares his authentic love of reading with Grace before leaving to serve as a Royal Air Force (RAF) pilot. Although initially doubtful about the impact reading would have on her own life, Grace becomes enraptured with The Count of Monte Cristo (one of George’s recommendations) and quickly becomes a voracious reader herself. With her newly found love of reading, Grace naturally begins to develop special relationships with several patrons, as well as with the owner himself, as she works to make the bookshop as accessible as possible. Not long after this, though, London itself becomes suspended in the throes of war, putting everything Grace loves at risk.

All in all, this is a wonderful story about someone who comes to learn the value of reading and eventually helps others in the community not only survive, but thrive in the stories of others during the unbearably difficult circumstances of wartime; it is truly an ode to the power of literature, and there were many lovely and moving quotes that warmed my heart as a librarian. I also really appreciated reading about a female protagonist who not only immerses herself, but thrives in a wartime position typically reserved for men; on top of working at the bookshop, Grace volunteers as an Air Raid Protection (ARP) warden to help those impacted by the daily bombings that would occur overnight. Lastly, I reveled in the obvious research Martin did on the Blitz to portray a captivating account of life in London during this time in history.

While there were some moments toward the conclusion that seemed to tie up a little too conveniently, I would still highly recommend this novel to anyone looking to dip their toes in a new perspective on WWII or just for a new historical fiction read in general! I would also like to note that, while Martin is a well-known historical romance author, this novel was not primarily focused on romantic themes or aspects.

 

The House at Riverton by Kate Morton

“It is a cruel, ironical art, photography. The dragging of captured moments into the future; moments that should have been allowed to be evaporate into the past; should exist only in memories, glimpsed through the fog of events that came after. Photographs force us to see people before their future weighed them down….”

Have you ever reread a book you love when you feel in a rut and need an escape from the stresses of daily life? I recently did this with The House at Riverton by Kate Morton. Originally released in 2007 as her debut novel, this enthralling plot simmers with family secrets, doomed love, and the ruthless influences of war to create a beautifully tragic story that will captivate you from the first page to the last.

Set in England and alternating between the historical backdrop of WWI and 1999, ninety-eight-year-old protagonist Grace Bradley relates her past as a young housemaid for an aristocratic family at Riverton Manor as she reaches the end of her life. It isn’t long, however, before you realize this reminiscing is not just for nostalgia’s sake. Upon receiving a visit from a young filmmaker planning to produce a movie about the dramatic and devastating events that eventually befell this renowned family, Grace begins to relive her past and experience her own role in the harrowing affairs that unfolded, tearing open a wound and exacerbating a guilt she has carried her entire life.

These calamitous events began with the apparent suicide of a young poet at Riverton Manor during a summer party in 1924. According to newspapers and official records, the only witnesses were sisters Hannah and Emmeline Hartford, who never spoke to each other again, and the family was seemingly cursed with several additional misfortunes thereafter. What the official records don’t show, however, is that there was a third witness and much more to the story than the public eye will ever know. As Grace tells some of her story to the filmmaker, the biggest secrets of all are only revealed in recordings she makes for her grandson, Marcus, as both grandmother and grandson carry guilt of a tragedy in their lives in which they feel at fault, despite truly extenuating circumstances.

One of the things I love most about Kate Morton’s novels are the ways in which she creates authentically complex characters who display such genuine portrayals of the human condition. While I have read several books with phenomenal character development in the past, Morton does so in such a masterful and poignant way I feel no other author does; this is especially true when considering the innocuous ways in which tragedy strikes in her novels. These tragedies truly create a haunting aura in which characters live with scars and guilt, but also often come full-circle when their struggles are used to help others get through similar hurdles, which often span generations. I also absolutely love the ways in which Morton effortlessly and seamlessly moves back-and-forth in time within her storylines.

Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys well-developed fiction with rich, complex character development; historical ties, especially to WWI and the English aristocracy; and a suspenseful, haunting storyline that will leave you guessing until the very last page!

This book is also available in the following formats:

OverDrive eBook

The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles

“Books and ideas are like blood; they need to circulate, and they keep us alive.”

One of my absolute favorite genres to read is historical fiction, but this particular book hits the jackpot because it is also about libraries and the amazing people who work in them! Just published in February, The Paris Library, by Janet Skeslien Charles, weaves together two primary narratives spanning across time and place to create a beautiful and haunting story about the strength of friendship, family, and libraries in the face of betrayal, loss, and war.

This story begins in 1939 France with the narrative of Odile Souchet, a fresh graduate of library school who interviews for a librarianship position at the American Library in Paris (ALP). She quickly finds herself at home in the stacks and among several new friends, including fellow librarians, devoted library subscribers, a volunteer who quickly becomes her best friend, and a police officer who becomes her beloved beau. Before long, however, Odile loses a part of herself as her twin brother, Remy, goes off to war and everything she loves, including the library, is endangered.

The second central narrative takes place in 1980s Montana through the eyes of a young teenager named Lily. After the death of her mother and her father’s eventual remarriage, Lily finds herself both lost and trapped in a small rural town she desperately wishes to escape. She eventually finds a sense of liberation in the friendship she develops with her elderly neighbor, who teaches her French, shares her love of literature and books, and essentially becomes a second mother during some of her darkest moments. Before long, Lily becomes curious about her neighbor’s past, as all she (and the rest of the town) knows is her status as a widowed war bride who left her entire life behind in Paris to come to Montana with her husband after the war. Despite the difference in age and background, these two characters have more in common than meets the eye and share a kinship of love and understanding that truly stands the test of time.

Overall, this novel is a heart-wrenching and tragic, albeit beautiful, story filled with memorable characters who are tested by unimaginable hardships. I reveled in the development of several characters, especially since I felt I was able to connect with their complex and flawed personas. While you learn the fate of many of these individuals, I definitely found myself wanting more information on others! I also really enjoyed Charles’s writing style – in addition to writing beautifully, it is obvious how much research she did in the creation of this book by the way she is able to truly whisk you away to another time and place as you read.

While I definitely loved the fictional aspects of this novel, I was delighted to learn that several librarians in the story, along with their remarkable and heroic actions, were based on real individuals. Despite the dangers and risks war posed to both the people and resources of the library, the ALP stayed open to subscribers, maintained a service in which they delivered around 100,000 books to soldiers fighting overseas, and risked their own lives to deliver books to Jewish subscribers who had been barred from entering the library. Charles first learned about this incredible history upon becoming the programs manager at the ALP and, feeling wholly inspired, decided to delve deeper into the history by writing this book. The result? An ode to the truly incredible and impactful roles libraries will always have in our society.

All in all, I highly, highly recommend this book to anyone who loves libraries and books, remarkable character development, and experiencing the strength and resiliency of the human race, especially through relationships formed with others.

The Lions of Fifth Avenue by Fiona Davis

Fiona Davis has written another masterful piece of historical fiction: The Lions of Fifth Avenue. What hooked me about this novel is that the New York Public Library plays a major part in each characters’ story. Told through the view points of New York in 1913/1914 and New York in 1993, Davis has managed to create a historical novel that weaves together two generations centered around similar themes: book thefts in the New York Public Library.

In 1913 New York, Laura Lyons seems to have the perfect life. Her husband has just been appointed the superintendent of the New York Public Library which means that her family now lives in the library. Tucked in an apartment hidden within the library, Laura, her husband, and their two children make their life together. While Laura should be happy with what she has, she wants more. Confident and sure of what she wants, Laura applies to the Columbia Journalism School and soon finds her respectable life blown apart. Her studies take her all across the city where she meets people she never would have met before.

She is introduced to the Heterodoxy Club, a radical group of all women who have found a safe space to share their opinions that society frowns upon: suffrage, women’s rights, birth control, among others. The beauty of the Heterodoxy Club is that it is a completely safe space for women to share their thoughts as they are not allowed to tell what is happening to people outside the group. The more Laura attends the Heterodoxy Club, the more she starts to question her life. She wants more than just being a wife and mother. Right as she seems to be getting what she wants, issues surface. Valuable books are stolen from the library. Her family is under scrutiny and their home is threatened, forcing Laura to figure out her priorities or she could lose it all.

Flash forward 80 years to 1993. Sadie Donovan works as a curator at the New York Public Library. Her grandmother is Laura Lyons, the famous essayist. That is an uncomfortable topic for Sadie to talk about given her job as curator. Life is going pretty well until books, notes, and rare manuscripts for the exhibit that Sadie is working on start disappearing from the Berg Collection. This famous collection has limited staff that run it, so the culprits have to be someone she knows. As the investigation ramps up, Sadie works with a private security expert to find the missing items and whoever is stealing. Sadie learns some uncomfortable secrets about her family the more she digs; things that could destroy her current life but that could also solve mysteries from the past.

This book is also available in the following formats:

Book Club @ Night – ‘Before We Were Yours’ on May 19

Looking for a new book club to join? Book Club @ Night is back and we’re reading adult fiction! On Wednesday, May 19th at 6:30p, we will be discussing Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate. Books are available at our Eastern Avenue curbside location for patrons to borrow for this book club. Registration is not required. This program is meeting virtually using GoTo Meeting. Information about how to join is listed below.

Curios what Before We Were Yours is about? Check out the following description provided by the publisher:

Memphis, 1939. Twelve-year-old Rill Foss and her four younger siblings live a magical life aboard their family’s Mississippi River shantyboat. But when their father must rush their mother to the hospital one stormy night, Rill is left in charge—until strangers arrive in force. Wrenched from all that is familiar and thrown into a Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage, the Foss children are assured that they will soon be returned to their parents—but they quickly realize the dark truth. At the mercy of the facility’s cruel director, Rill fights to keep her sisters and brother together in a world of danger and uncertainty.

Aiken, South Carolina, present day. Born into wealth and privilege, Avery Stafford seems to have it all: a successful career as a federal prosecutor, a handsome fiancé, and a lavish wedding on the horizon. But when Avery returns home to help her father weather a health crisis, a chance encounter leaves her with uncomfortable questions and compels her to take a journey through her family’s long-hidden history, on a path that will ultimately lead either to devastation or to redemption.

Based on one of America’s most notorious real-life scandals—in which Georgia Tann, director of a Memphis-based adoption organization, kidnapped and sold poor children to wealthy families all over the country—Lisa Wingate’s riveting, wrenching, and ultimately uplifting tale reminds us how, even though the paths we take can lead to many places, the heart never forgets where we belong.

This book is also available in the following formats:

Book Club @ Night – ‘Before We Were Yours’ by Lisa Wingate
Wed, May 19, 2021 6:30 PM – 7:30 PM (CDT)

Please join my meeting from your computer, tablet or smartphone.
https://global.gotomeeting.com/join/669336645

You can also dial in using your phone.
United States: +1 (224) 501-3412

Access Code: 669-336-645

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Montague Siblings Series by Mackenzi Lee

The Montague Siblings series by Mackenzi Lee is an adventurous romp that has surpassed my every expectation, and I’m thrilled that the third volume is supposed to come out in April.

The first book is The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, and tells the story of Henry “Monty” Montague, a nobleman’s son embarking on his “grand tour” of Europe before he settles down to work on the family estate. Monty would rather party and have fun than do the serious, cultured work of a nobleman, so he’s excited to get one last hurrah with his beloved best friend Percy (and, to a lesser degree, his younger sister) before the drudgery begins. Unfortunately for Monty, his impulsive, fun-loving nature quickly gets him into trouble, and his respectable “grand tour” turns into a disaster-filled chase across the continent, featuring pirates, vengeful nobles, alchemy, danger, kidnapping, and lots of romantic misunderstandings.

The sequel is The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy, featuring Monty’s younger sister Felicity. A powerhouse of intelligence, backbone, and independence, Felicity wants two things:  to be a doctor, and avoid getting married. Regrettably, university administrators unanimously believe only men can be the guardians of science and medicine. Her last chance is to meet with a renowned doctor in Germany and convince him to change her fate, but finances are a problem… until a mysterious woman offers to foot the bill, in exchange for traveling as her maid. With no other options, Felicity agrees, launching her on yet another perilous quest across the European continent in pursuit of life-altering secrets.

The final installment is The Nobleman’s Guide to Scandal and Shipwrecks, set some years later and featuring Monty and Felicity’s much younger brother, Aiden. As sole heir, Aiden is set to take over the Montague estate, but with a diagnosis of hysteria and an embarrassing breakdown on the public record, he’s not viewed as terribly fit for the job. In desperation, Aiden sets out on a journey to find his long-lost older siblings and convince them to take over the estate in his place. To his frustration, Monty refuses point-blank, agreeing only to help him claim the last of their late mother’s possessions in the Caribbean. But in true Montague fashion, this seemingly simple errand turns into a race across the world to chase down an mysterious artifact with links to a family curse.

I love these books because they’re packed with action and adventure, period details, and modern sensibilities – especially in the portrayal of well-rounded, realistically diverse characters. Not all historical fiction (or fiction published in the period) acknowledges disabilities, racism, sexism, LGBTQ identities, or mental health, but this series acknowledges all those things, and still presents happy or hopeful endings for the affected characters. I recommend this series as a perfect escapist read.

The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes

There is no religion without love, and people may talk as much as they like about their religion, but if it does not teach them to be good and kind to man and beast, it is all a sham. – ANNA SEWELL, Black Beauty

The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes is the embodiment of the above quote. The town of Baileyville, Kentucky is not what Alice Wright expected. Growing up in England, all Alice wanted was to get away from her stifling life and her narrow minded parents.  When she met Bennett Van Cleve, a handsome American who promised her a thrilling life away, Alice married him and left. Traveling across the world and eventually ending up in Baileyville, Kentucky, Alice has stars in her eyes about her new life and all the wonderous things she can do.

Baileyville does not live up to her expectations. It quickly becomes claustrophobic as Alice and Bennett are forced to live with Bennett’s overbearing father. Struggling to carve out a life for herself separate than that of her domineering father-in-law and away from the judgmental eyes of the local townsfolk, Alice wants so much more than this life has. When the opportunity to join the team of women delivering books as part of Eleanor Roosevelt’s new traveling library appears, Alice promptly signs up.

Beginning to work with the team, Alice learns more about their daily lives and the motivations for why(and how) each ended up with the horseback librarians. The leader of the local horseback librarians is Margery, a woman who quickly becomes Alice’s friend and, more importantly, her ally. Margery has always lived on the outskirts as a self-sufficient, self-confident, and quick-witted woman who has never asked for a man’s permission to do anything. Margery, Alice, and three other women become known as the Packhorse Librarians of Kentucky and start bringing books, magazines, recipes, and information to families who desperately need them.

The women are clearly the focus in this novel, but the relationships with the men they love quickly show how compassion, loyalty, humanity, and justice are all necessary components to life in Baileyville, but whether or not the townspeople follow them is another story altogether. Although these women are working hard to provide a necessary service to people, the community doesn’t support their efforts entirely. The dangers these women face grow everyday as they travel the mountainside to bring books and materials to people who have never had any. Apparently giving the community access to facts and information is offensive to some and those people will stop at nothing to end the packhorse librarians for good.

This book is also available in the following formats:

Plain Bad Heroines by Emily Danforth

I think I’ve already mentioned that Jane Eyre is one of my favorite books. The strong female lead, the fairly unconventional take on romance, the theme of independence all really resonate with me as a reader. I’ve also mentioned that I was trying this fall to read more spooky books to get into the spirit of the season. One such book I read was Plain Bad Heroines by Emily Danforth. I discovered it by chance on the homepage of the library catalog as one of the new books being ordered for the collection, and after reading the synopsis I was hooked. It has similar themes: lots of female characters, unusual and unconventional romances, and a strong theme of struggling for independence.

The book is told in alternating perspectives: first, in 1902, you hear the story of a girls’ boarding school as it’s rocked by a series of grisly deaths, all revolving around a mysterious and inflammatory book. Then, you’re transported to the early 2000s as Hollywood discovers the story of the cursed boarding school and starts to make a movie about it. The movie seeks to capture the horror of the original 1902 events, but succeeds too well as bizarre and frightening events start to happen on set. Caught in the middle are a number of fascinating characters – in 1902, the headmistress Libbie and her lover Alex strive to understand and overcome the boarding school’s sinister atmosphere, and they fail to protect several of their students including Flo and Clara, a bold pair of lovers, and ghostly Eleanor Faderman, who idolizes them. In the modern story, wunderkind writer Merritt, lesbian star Harper, and Audrey, daughter of an iconic scream queen, find themselves thrown together both in fear and mutual attraction as they work on the film.

The appeal of the book is partly its strong characters, complicated and fairly relatable, and partly its wry writing style. Like Jane Eyre, the narrator addresses the reader directly to tell the story (“Reader, I married him”, etc.), and the author really leans into the style, adding lots of footnotes and asides during the narrative. While it’s a fairly thick volume, with lots of story to tell at both points in history, I found that I kept reading without fatigue because of the tense atmosphere and slow-burn action. Typical of horror-style stories, you’re filled with an increasing sense of dread that something awful is going to happen. However (spoiler alert), I was surprised and a bit disappointed that while the 1902 story was full of horrible things happening, and its ending was decently grim, the modern story had a more ambivalent ending, neither grim nor hopeful. I was left with a sense of lingering questions and an uncertain future. As far as I was concerned, the last page could have read The End? (spoiler alert: it didn’t.)

Here’s my theory as to why that is: the underlying theme of both stories is resistance to oppressive norms, expressed particularly in the form of lesbian relationships. This book and its characters are entirely, staggeringly, defiantly sapphic, which comes with certain realities. My guess is the 1902 story had to end grimly, because the outlook for independent women and lesbian love at that time was decently grim. In the modern era, however, things aren’t so final. There’s more freedom and acceptance, but sexism and homophobia still exist, making for an uncertain, cloudy outlook. Therefore, the modern characters couldn’t be said to have completely defeated the curse, but they stand stronger against it. Of course, there’s a lot more going on in the book, especially as the characters struggled for independence in various ways. Some wanted to be independent of everyone, some wanted to be independent from their parents or their past, some wanted to be independent from society’s rules, and some wanted to be independent from their fame. (Their success at achieving independence predictably varied.) Altogether, I thought this was a thought-provoking, engaging book with lots of thrills and chills.

If you like historical fiction, horror fiction, dramedies, or feminist histories, I recommend you try this book. (Although, if you’re afraid of wasps, bees, and yellow jackets, you might want to think twice. They’re EVERYWHERE.)

The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd

Sue Monk Kidd is an author that has lived in my to-read pile since The Secret Life of Bees came out in 2002. Late one night, unable to sleep, I found The Book of Longings, Kidd’s latest novel, available online through OverDrive. I decided to give it a go.

Set in the first century, The Book of Longings tells the story of a young woman named Ana who desires to find her voice and lead her own destiny. Ana was raised in a wealthy family in Sepphoris. Her father worked very closely with the ruler in Galilee, a position that benefited the family immensely, yet also put the family in danger. Ana has always been rebellious and ambitious, wanting to spend her days writing the stories of women who have been silenced, neglected, and castigated for years. Her parents have other ideas of how she should spend her time.

In the market one day, Ana runs into Jesus, an eighteen-year-old with rich philosophical and spiritual ideas. Drawn to his presence, Ana manufactures ways to bump into him again, leading to hours long conversations where the two exchange intellectual ideas that blossom into love. Soon married, Ana and Jesus settle into life in Nazareth with Jesus’ extended family: his mother, Mary, his brothers, James and Simon, and their respective families. While living there, Ana’s longings to be her own understood woman intensifies while Jesus toils to provide for the family.  Consistently defying the expectations society places on women, Ana isn’t afraid to speak her mind. Her rebellious and impetuous streak leads Ana and her family into danger.

Bolstered by the support of her aunt, Yaltha, her childhood friend, Tabitha, and an older friend, Phasaelis, Ana speaks her mind consistently. When one outburst puts her in even more danger, Ana and Yaltha are forced to flee Nazareth and head to Alexandria. Leaving Jesus behind right as he begins his public ministry, Ana gains comfort with the knowledge that her adopted brother, Judas, will send a note to her when it is safe for her to return. Finding refuge in an unexpected place, Ana and Yaltha spend their days waiting for word from Judas so they can reunite with Jesus and his disciples.

The story of Ana is one of a woman who longs to be able to pursue the passion boiling inside of her, while society continuously shuts her down. Her story is one of many, yet the focus on Ana allows readers to learn more about the women behind the scenes during this time. Sue Monk Kidd has woven a very well researched tale of Jesus’ life told from the perspective of the women that surround him.

This book is also available in the following formats: