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:

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

“We all live in an unwalled city, that was it. I saw lines scored across the map of Ireland; carved all over the globe. Train tracks, roads, shipping channels, a web of human traffic that connected all nations into one great suffering body.”

I have to admit, I took a risk reading The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue due to its extremely timely and grisly content but, that being said, I am extremely glad I read this novel and am excited to share it with you.

This historical fiction novel is set in Dublin, Ireland, and takes place during the most lethal wave of the 1918 Flu Pandemic and WWI. The story primarily revolves around Nurse Julia Powers, who works as a midwife and cares for expecting mothers who have contracted the virus. Not unlike conditions we have witnessed during the COVID-19 pandemic, hospitals were described as being completely overrun with patients, severely understaffed, and lacking necessary medical supplies. With that being said, there were also some very different hardships people experienced over a century ago, so this is a very enlightening and humbling glimpse into the experiences of a past pandemic. Taking place over the span of three days, you will experience a whirlwind of emotions as you follow Julia through her incredible work at the hospital and meet several unforgettable women who will haunt you long after you finish the story.

Overall, I found this book to be extremely intense, but definitely worth the read. Not only does this subject hit close to home as we are living through a pandemic ourselves, but the fact that Julia spends most of her time working in the maternity ward lends itself to several passages with explicit descriptions of medical procedures (albeit they are noted as being extremely accurate for the time according to the notes at the end of the book). While I definitely found myself feeling squeamish at times, I was truly in awe and astounded by the seemingly impossible work Julia did for her patients during such a trying time.

This story is also brimming with character development, as you get a chance to intimately meet several women in the confines of the maternity/fever ward and learn their stories over the course of three days. You will definitely find yourself on an emotional rollercoaster, experiencing sorrow and sympathy, hope and love, shock and awe, life and death, and everything in between. I was extremely inspired and humbled by the strength and resilience of humanity in this novel, and this is what ultimately made it well worth the read while living in the midst of COVID-19.

I also found myself extremely interested in the setting and time period of this story itself, as I didn’t know too much about either the 1918 pandemic or the history of Ireland during this period of history before reading. In fact, I was drawn in so much that I immediately found a documentary and podcast to listen to after finishing the book.

All in all, I found this novel to be worth its intensity and, while it may not be the best time to read this particular book for some, it may be relatable and inspirational to others as we live through a pandemic in our own time.

This book is also available in the following formats:

OverDrive eAudiobook

OverDrive eBook

Virtual Book Club – ‘The Night Watchman’ on September 30

On Wednesday, September 30th at 2pm, Virtual Book Club will be discussing The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich. This book club is held virtually. More information about how to join is listed below.

Want to know more about what The Night Watchman? Check out the following description provided by the publisher.

Based on the extraordinary life of National Book Award-winning author Louise Erdrich’s grandfather who worked as a night watchman and carried the fight against Native dispossession from rural North Dakota all the way to Washington, D.C., this powerful novel explores themes of love and death with lightness and gravity and unfolds with the elegant prose, sly humor, and depth of feeling of a master craftsman. In the Night Watchman, Louise Erdrich creates a fictional world populated with memorable characters who are forced to grapple with the worst and best impulses of human nature. Illuminating the loves and lives, the desires and ambitions of these characters with compassion, wit, and intelligence, The Night Watchman is a majestic work of fiction from this revered cultural treasure.

This book is also available in the following formats:

Virtual Book Club
Wed, Sep 30, 2020 2:00 PM – 3:00 PM (CDT)

Please join my meeting from your computer, tablet or smartphone.
https://global.gotomeeting.com/join/810260757

You can also dial in using your phone.
United States: +1 (312) 757-3121

Access Code: 810-260-757

New to GoToMeeting? Get the app now and be ready when your first meeting starts:
https://global.gotomeeting.com/install/810260757

Virtual Book Club – ‘The Night Tiger’ on August 19th

On Wednesday, August 19th, at 2pm, Virtual Book Club will be discussing The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo. We are using GoTo Meeting which will allow patrons to video chat with the librarian about the book! More information about how to join is listed below.

Curious what the book is about? Check out the following description provided by the publisher.

Ji Lin is an apprentice dressmaker, moonlighting as a dance-hall girl to pay her mother’s mahjong debts. When one of her dance partners leaves behind a gruesome souvenier, Ji Lin plunges into a world of secrets and superstitions. Eleven-year-old Chinese houseboy Ren is trying to find his master’s severed finger and bury with his body, or his master’s soul will wander the earth forever. As both young people go on their quests, unexplained deaths plague their district in 1930s colonial Malaysia.

This book is also available in the following formats:

Virtual Book Club
Wed, Aug 19, 2020 2:00 PM – 3:00 PM (CDT)

Please join my meeting from your computer, tablet or smartphone.
https://global.gotomeeting.com/join/160996525

You can also dial in using your phone.
United States: +1 (646) 749-3112

Access Code: 160-996-525

New to GoToMeeting? Get the app now and be ready when your first meeting starts:
https://global.gotomeeting.com/install/160996525

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys is a young adult historical fiction book that was originally published in 2011. It is the first book written by author Ruta Sepetys that was turned into the 2018 movie ‘Ashes in the Snow‘. Ruta Sepetys writes primarily young adult historical fiction with some romance twists.

Between Shades of Gray tells the story of fifteen-year-old Lina. In 1941, Lina lives with her younger brother Jonas and both of her parents in Lithuania. Everything changes for the family one night with they are pulled from their home in Lithuania by Soviet guards. Separated at a train station, the family doesn’t know where they will end up. Eventually they are sent to Siberia where Lina learns that her father has been sentenced to death in a prison camp. Lina, Jonas, and their mother have to fight for their lives as they struggle to keep their family together. This book tells only one story of a Lithuanian family, but it serves as a catalyst for readers to start their own research into the thousands of families that were affected by this in the 1940s.

This book is also available in the following formats:

Reese Witherspoon Celebrity Book Club – May pick

Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine has announced a new book pick! Every month, Reese picks out a book that she loves to share with her book club. All of the books that she chooses have a woman at the center of the story. Since the launch of this book club in 2017, Reese has hand-picked over 35 books for her community to read.

Her May pick is The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi. For more information about what the book is about, check out the blurb below provided by the publisher.

Escaping from an arranged and abusive marriage, seventeen-year-old Lakshmi makes her way alone from her 1950s rural village to the vibrant pink city of Jaipur. There she becomes the henna artist—and confidante—most in demand to the wealthy women of the upper class. But trusted with the secrets of the wealthy, she can never reveal her own…

Known for her original designs and sage advice, Lakshmi must tread carefully to avoid the jealous gossips who could ruin her reputation and her livelihood. As she pursues her dream of an independent life, she is startled one day when she is confronted by her husband, who has tracked her down these many years later with a high-spirited young girl in tow—a sister Lakshmi never knew she had. Suddenly the caution that she has carefully cultivated as protection is threatened. Still she perseveres, applying her talents and lifting up those that surround her as she does.

Vivid and compelling in its portrait of one woman’s struggle for fulfillment in a society pivoting between the traditional and the modern, The Henna Artist opens a door into a world that is at once lush and fascinating, stark and cruel.

Want to make sure that you don’t miss any of Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine book club picks? Join our Best Sellers Club and have her picks automatically put on hold for you when they are announced every month.

This book is also available in the following formats:

The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott

The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott  transports the reader back to the politics of the Cold War in the 1950s and the tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union during the years immediately following World War II.   At the heart of the story is the secret plan by the United States government to get its hands on Boris Pasternak’s masterpiece Doctor Zhivago in order to publish it for the world to read.

The Secrets We Kept is told in alternating chapters with scenes taking place between the United States and The Soviet Union.  Much of the story revolves around the pressure and repercussions on Pasternak of writing a book that is in direct contrast with the government of the USSR and their eventual censorship of his novel.  Pasternak’s struggle is not only with the government, it is also with his long time mistress, Olga Ivinskya, who became his most passionate advocate and sometime publicist.  Olga also has the distinction of being the inspiration for the main character in Pasternak’s novel, Lara.  The Soviet government went as far as imprisoning Olga for numerous years due to her association with Pasternak as an additional form of pressure on him.  Upon her release, she returned and they picked up where they left off with the goal of publishing Pasternak’s book.

Simultaneously, in Washington, D. C., new college graduate Irina is plucked from her secretarial position within the US government and given orders to go undercover to help smuggle a copy of the book out of the USSR.  Along with a few select others, she learns the ropes of becoming an international spy by transferring the manuscript of the book to its final destination.  Inspired by the United States belief that literature can change the world, the hand selected group of US spies assume identities all over the world to ensure the book has a worldwide audience.

When I discovered that this book was centered on the writing of Doctor Zhivago, I was immediately intrigued.  I knew just a little about the writing of the book and its aftermath, but this work of historical fiction is not only an intriguing read, but has me wanting to find out more about this time period and the men and women whose passion for literature brought the novel to a worldwide audience.

The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

Stuart Turton’s debut novel, The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, is a twisty book that requires readers to pay close attention to what’s happening in order to catch the murderer.

Evelyn Hardcastle is going to be killed tonight. This isn’t the first time she’s been killed though and it probably won’t be the last.

Evelyn’s parents have invited the same people who were at their house for a weekend nineteen years ago back to their house for a party to celebrate the return of their daughter Evelyn from Paris. Why the nineteen year gap? Nineteen years ago to the day, their son Thomas was murdered by the lake near Blackheath, their home. Seldom returning to Blackheath, this party is a reunion for all.

The party is meant to be a celebration, but as the clock strikes 11:00pm, Evelyn is killed by the reflecting pool as fireworks explode overhead. As one of the guests brought to Blackheath eventually realizes, that is not the first time Evelyn will be killed and it won’t be the last. Until he can solve her murder and until he delivers the name of the murderer to an interested party, this guest is destined to repeat the day of Evelyn’s death over and over.

How is this possible, you may ask? This book isn’t your typical murder mystery. The main character repeats the same day eight times. If he doesn’t solve the crime by the end of the eighth day, his memory is wiped and he begins the loop again. Every day, he is told that if he brings the name of the murderer to a person waiting at the edge of the lake at 11pm, he will finally be allowed to leave Blackheath. He must fight against many forces beyond his control in order to stay alive. He only has 24 hours in each host, but if he is killed in a host before his 24 hours are up, he bounces to the next host. As each day begins anew, he wakes up in the body of a different guest with the task to solve Evelyn’s murder. He finds himself struggling against the hosts he has inhabited and also against the people working to stop him from ever leaving Blackheath.

This high concept murder mystery is certainly not for the faint of heart. Like I mentioned before, readers must pay attention to what is happening in the book in order not to be lost amidst the many shifting plot lines. Read this book and let me know what you thought! I’m curious what others think of the plot structure and the many twists and turns.


This book is also available in the following formats:

We Must Be Brave by Frances Liardet

What would you do if you found a child abandoned on a bus? In current times, there are procedures in place for how to handle this. Now travel back to World War II. Imagine you found a small child asleep on the backseat of an empty bus after a mass evacuation from a town miles away that had just been bombed. What would you do now? We Must Be Brave by Frances Liardet tackles this topic and more as civilians in England during World War II struggle to find a new normal.

We Must Be Brave by Frances Liardet begins in December 1940. German bombs are falling on Southampton. In the midst of a massive and chaotic scene, residents are evacuating from the bombed town on buses to rural villages to escape the devastation. Helping to clear one bus in Upton village, Ellen Parr is stunned to find a young girl sleeping in the back of an empty bus, entirely by herself. Picking up the exhausted child and walking through town to search for her mother, Ellen quickly realizes that five-year-old Pamela is utterly alone. Left with no other options, Ellen and her husband take the child and some other refuges home with them.

While the other refuges leave their house in the morning, young Pamela stays. Newly-married Ellen and her husband never thought that they would have children. In fact, they knew that they could never have any biological children of their own, something that Ellen always thought that she was fine with. The addition of Pamela to their home, as well as some other children that the Parrs have taken in, begins to change Ellen’s mind. The longer Pamela stays, the more attached Ellen becomes (Pamela gets attached as well). Ellen starts to think that after the war, Pamela will stay with them and their family will be complete. Once the fighting settles down however, circumstances occur that will once again shatter the quiet idyllic life that the Parrs have created with Pamela. They realize that Pamela was never truly theirs to keep.

Frances Liardet has written a masterful story about the many different forms family and friends can take. As we go through life, Liardet spins a tale of the many different ways we can reach out and change the lives of others. Both the smallest gestures and largest acts can forever alter the lives of others.


This book is also available in the following formats: