What’s Ashley Reading?: The Children on the Hill

The Children on the Hill by Jennifer McMahon

First line: Her smell sends me tumbling back through time to before.

Summary: In 1978, Dr. Hildreth lives on the property of a state of the art psych ward with her grandchildren, Violet and Eric. One day she brings home a young patient, Iris, in the hopes that time with other kids will help her start talking and progressing on her mental health journey. The children bond during play but especially with their love of monsters. As they overhear whispers at the hospital they start to question what their grandmother is doing with patients like Iris.

In 2019, Lizzy Shelley has created a name for herself through blogs, TED Talks and TV appearances on her monster hunting. However, when she hears about a mysterious disappearance of a young girl in Maine, she is drawn to this location. Is it the monster she has spent years avoiding and also hunting too?

My Thoughts: I really enjoy dual timelines. They make for interesting story lines and make the twists even more fun. I did hear a small spoiler while reading the book so some of the twists did not shock me as much as they might have but there was one part that was really not what I was expecting. I literally gasped when I read it.

However, I did find the story rather longer than it needed to be. It seemed to drag in the middle and seemed almost repetitive. But other than that I found the story to be enjoyable. It has a paranormal hint with still being a contemporary thriller.

FYI: Mental illness and monsters.

The Lineup: Hannah

Hannah’s Lineup

Podcast: Edith! by Crooked Media

Edith! is a scripted podcast about the somewhat-true story of Edith Wilson being the first unofficial female president of the United States. 28th President Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke in 1919, one year before the end of his presidential term. Rumors have long said that his wife Edith assumed many of his presidential duties. Edith!, starring Rosamund Pike, fictionalizes that story with humor and intrigue.

I love listening to scripted podcasts. It reminds me of old-time radio shows and is a nice change from traditional talk radio or audio books. Scripted podcasts are also perfect for short or long summer road trips!

Available here or wherever you get your podcasts.

TV Show: Ted Lasso

Starring Jason Sudeikis, Ted Lasso is a feel good show for the entire family. Ted Lasso is a football coach from Wichita State (funny for us Kansans!) who travels across the pond to England to become a manager of a soccer team. It’s hilarious. It’s heartwarming. It’s good TV!

I don’t rewatch many shows. But when I’m sick or in a bad mood, a handful of shows can perk me up…Gilmore Girls, Parks and Rec, and Ted Lasso. I do prefer season 1 to season 2, but I can’t wait for season 3!

Available on AppleTV+

Hobby: Sourdough

I grew my first sourdough starter from scratch in May 2019. The then-preteen boys named him Thanos. We just celebrated his 3rd birthday! I’ve baked yeasted breads for many years, but sourdough was a whole new adventure. In the last three years, I’ve explored different methods, experimented with recipes, and collected a myriad of equipment.

Working with sourdough and baking bread is a source of stress relief for me. The pandemic hasn’t been good for anyone’s mental health, and it’s important to find a hobby that brings you peace and happiness. Working with sourdough brings me a sense of calm. It might sound weird to some people, but prepping, baking, and enjoying the fruit of my labor is my happy place. After all…carbs = happiness!

For more information about growing your own sourdough starter and several starter recipes, check out The King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion : The All-Purpose Baking Cookbook.

Game: Monument Valley

Monument Valley is an award winning puzzle game from ustwo games. It’s available on a variety of platforms, from iOS to Android to PC. It’s different than any other puzzle game you’ve ever played before. The artwork and music are smooth, mellow, and beautiful. The puzzles make you think, but they won’t stress you out. If you like puzzles and adventure games, definitely give Monument Valley a try. It’s even a game you can revisit later. The puzzles are so intricate that you won’t remember every step of the journey.

There are two seasons available, Monument Valley I and Monument Valley II. If you are lucky enough to have Apple Arcade, you can play both for free!

Book: The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune

The House is the Cerulean Sea pulled me out of a reading slump. It’s one part humor, one part fantasy, one part romance, and one part science fiction. It ticked all the boxes of my favorite genres in one book! The book does start a bit slow, but you will be rewarded if you plow through the first three chapters.

The book tells the story of Linus Baker, who is a social worker for the Department in Charge of Magical Youth. These magical youth reminded me of mutants from the X-Men. Linus has to visit an orphanage run by the mysterious, intelligent Arthur Parnassus, who has several secrets of his own. Arhur’s charges are likely the most dangerous youth Linus has ever come across, including the Anti-Christ himself. As Linus spends time with Athur and his wards and gets to know them, the line between his duty and his heart begin to blur.

Available for checkout from KanShare Libraries

Monica’s Musings: When the Stars Go Dark

When the Stars Go Dark by Paula McLain

“What is all the suffering for if not so we can see how alike we are, and not alone? Where will the mercy come from, if not from us?”

― Paula McLain, When the Stars Go Dark

Summary:

Anna, a missing person detective, flees to Mendocino, CA to grieve after tragedy strikes in her personal life. She lived there as a child and felt like it might be the only place left for her. When she arrives, she sees that a teenage girl in the area has gone missing. It reminds Anna of an unsolved murder from her childhood that changed the Mendocino community forever.

She realizes that she was led to this moment. Her expertise has given her insight into how to solve this case. Anna becomes obsessed with the missing girl and goes on a journey of self-reflection. Weaving together actual missing person cases and trauma theory, McLain tells a story of fate, redemption, and what it takes when the worst happens to reclaim our lives.

My thoughts:

While I enjoyed this book, it was terribly sad. Anna has seen more than anyone ever should have to. Her own childhood was traumatic, and her personal growth was painful. She never felt as though she belonged, and when her own family experienced tragedy, she blamed herself and ran. The case of the teenage girl in Mendocino was a distraction for her while she grieved. All of the characters introduced in this story had tremendous baggage. This common factor is what brought them together.

Despite the sadness, the emotions portrayed by each character made it feel relatable. It is a great book to tug at your heart and make you feel exactly what they might be going through. I would recommend reading the author’s note at the end of the book. It gives reasoning for all of the details McLain incorporated into the story.

What’s Ashley Reading?: Happy-Go-Lucky

Happy-Go-Lucky by David Sedaris

First line: It was spring, and my sister Lisa and I were in her toy-sized car, riding from the airport in Greensboro, North Carolina, to her house in Winston-Salem.

Summary: In David Sedaris’ latest collection of stories he tackles events like the pandemic, the death of his father and hurricanes at his beach house.

My Thoughts: As with most of his other books I was laughing through much of it. He can bring humor to such serious topics without being too vulgar. But when he talks about his father it just breaks my heart. He had such a difficult relationship with him and he does not hold back when he talks about it. I think through this collection I learned so much more about David than his previous books. It was a very small book and a quick read which I would highly recommend.

FYI: Some language and difficult topics.

Monica’s Musings: The Guest List

The Guest List by Lucy Foley

“Life is messy. We all know this. Terrible things happen, I learned that while I was still a child. But no matter what happens, life is only a series of days. You can’t control more than a single day. But you can control one of them. Twenty-four hours can be curated.”

― Lucy Foley, The Guest List

Summary:

The bride ‧ The plus one ‧ The best man ‧ The wedding planner ‧ The bridesmaid ‧ The body

Guests gather on a secluded island to celebrate a beautiful wedding. The groom is a handsome and charming rising television star. The bride is smart, ambitious, and a magazine publisher. It is a high-profile and luxurious wedding.

Soon after arriving, all of the guests can feel the dark energy of the island. As the champagne popped and the festivities began, resentments and petty jealousies mingled with the reminiscences and well wishes.

And then someone turns up dead.

My thoughts:

I was very impressed with this book. As the reader, you get to know each character very well, and every detail of their story is important. There is constant drama between the guests, and I was never sure what would happen next. It was full of scandals and secrets.

I was suspicious of each guest while reading. At one point or another, I thought each one of them could have killed another person on the island. The vibe of the island was dark and mysterious. I could imagine the fear of each person while they each experienced the strange feeling of death in the air. Finding a body was almost expected.

Nothing was clear until the very end. All of the dark secrets came out, and everything made sense then. I did not see the ending coming at all, and I am more than satisfied with how the author wrapped up the loose ends!

What’s Ashley Reading?: Pandora’s Jar

Pandora’s Jar by Natalie Haynes

First line: When we think of Pandora, we probably have a picture in our minds.

Summary: In this look at the women of Greek myths we get a detailed look at them throughout time and different retellings. As most of the myths were written by men the women get sidelined or they get misaligned as the villains of the story. However, these women have been blamed or misrepresented but by comparing different versions of their stories we can see that they are actually much stronger characters than previously thought.

My Thoughts: I remember being fascinated by Greek myths when I was younger, as I think many people are. The stories are filled with gods, wars, love and tragedy. One of my first introductions to the myths was through the show Xena: Warrior Princess. It was cheesy but as a kid I did not notice. And then in high school we read Oedipus Rex and The Odyssey. Even now, nearly twenty years later I still remember the stories. They are something that still fascinates me today. So when I saw this book being released I knew I had to pick it up.

The author brings to life a collection of women from Greek myths. Either these women have been made into monsters, killers or slaves to their desires but she shows that they can be much more than that. Pandora has always been looked at as a woman who brought the suffering to the world through her curiosity. And Medusa is the evil monster that turns everyone she meets into stone. These women have been treated poorly through history and I love to see Haynes giving them their stories back.

Even though parts of the book were either dry or repetitive I did really enjoy reading this. I knew many of the stories but not all of them. I learned a lot about Greek history and myth but also about these fascinating women who filled their mythology.

FYI: Great for people looking at a new spin on women’s history.

What’s Ashley Reading?: An Honest Lie

An Honest Lie by Tarryn Fisher

First line: At the end of the highway sat an old town, not completely dead, but on its last breath.

Summary: Rainy has recently moved in with her boyfriend in Washington. In an effort to get to know his friends she has started attending their weekly get together but has never really felt a part of the group. When she is guilted into attending a girl’s weekend in Las Vegas she knows that it is going to bring back all the painful memories she has spent years trying to hide.

My Thoughts: My first introduction to Tarryn Fisher was The Wives. It was full of crazy twists and a thrilling read. And at the beginning of this one I felt like we were going to be going through another wild ride. It has a charismatic cult leader, the excitement of Las Vegas and a group of women who seemed determined to learn more about this new addition to their group. As a reader I expected many secrets to come out as they always do. But it happened in a strange way. I cannot describe it without giving away much of the plot but it was just not what I was expecting. That may be a good thing but it was not as satisfying as I would have liked. I did enjoy the book. It was quick and had an interesting plot but it lacked something that I cannot place.

FYI: Definitely read The Wives for a crazy story that will keep you guessing!

The Line-Up: Alyssa

Artist: Jessica Roux

Jessica Roux is a Nashville-based freelance illustrator and artist who specializes in animal and plant subjects. Her work has this colorful yet vintage style that plays with duality. It’s warm, but jarring. It’s gentle, but terrifying. Jessica will include a beautiful bouquet of flowers in vibrant paint next to an ivory skull or slithering serpent.

An Instagram post introduced me to her work. The post advertised her new oracle deck, Woodland Wardens, and from the moment I saw the drawings, I was enchanted. Unlike a tarot deck with its traditional cards and meanings, an oracle deck is entirely unique to the creator, and Jessica’s cards use the wisdom of both plants and animals to guide the user. I bought the deck at Barnes and Noble a few days after its release, and I have spent so much time staring at these cards and their art.

Jessica Roux also illustrates book covers, and one of her projects actually led to my next recommendation!

Book: A Game of Fox and Squirrels by Jenn Reese

I picked this book up because the cover art and illustrations were done by Jessica Roux, but the story itself is just as phenomenal as the drawings. This middle grade novel is about Sam who moves with her older sister to rural Oregon after experiencing domestic violence at the hands of her father. Sam’s aunt gives her a card game called Fox and Squirrels, and the cards summon a mythical fox with a dapper suit and a charming proposition. The Fox promises Sam that he will grant her a wish if she can locate the Golden Acorn, but the only way to find this wish-giving item is to give the manipulative Fox whatever he wants.

This book is so merciful in its representation of a child who has experienced domestic violence. It covers traits of PTSD and survivor’s guilt and building trust in other adults when one’s primary caregivers have betrayed them. It’s also written in beautiful prose that encapsulates the elegant forests of Oregon. The relationships between the characters is believable, especially in demonstrating how secrecy and shame become embedded in a family driven by emotional abuse. These characters are full, rich, and human in a relatable way. As someone who has gone through similar situations as Sam, I found this book to be profoundly validating, and I would recommend it to either children currently in this situation or adults who still live with those memories and scars to this day.

Music: Out Walking by Abby Gundersen

While I love loud, aggressive music to pump me up for a workout or rhythmic, R&B beats to dance to, sometimes gentle piano music is what the soul needs. Abby Gundersen is a composer from Washington who has been collaborating with her brother, Noah, and other musicians for years on multiple projects. Most often Abby works on other people’s tracks, playing piano, violin, or fiddle in the background, but every few years she’ll release a collection of solo instrumentals.

Out Walking is her newest EP. It features six songs, all piano tracks, and explores the feelings one has when walking around a neighborhood, garden, lighthouse, or just heading north. It’s a delicate album, and each song has this way of making whatever you are looking at or doing seem beautiful and profound. I listen to this album when driving and suddenly I feel like I’m in a movie where seemingly mundane things, like kids riding their bikes or construction workers tearing up a road, are existential and poignant.

I love the sounds you can hear on this album too. I believe Abby recorded on an older piano in some kind of attic because you can hear her hitting the piano pedals and the keys striking the base. It’s a palpable album, both soothing and emotional.

I recommend starting with The Neighborhood or Lighthouse, and the entire album is available on Spotify or iTunes.

TV Show: Netflix’s The Lost Pirate Kingdom

Netflix is a hot-spot for interesting documentaries, and The Lost Pirate Kingdom is an adventure into the Golden Age of Piracy. I’ve always been fascinated by the visage of the pirate; a rebellious sea-sailing warrior armed with freedom and pretty jewels, but the truth of the pirate is much more brutal. I wanted to understand what led individuals to such a chaotic and dangerous life.

The Lost Pirate Kingdom is part documentary/part dramatization. Shakespearean actor Sir Derek Jacobi narrates a six-episode series into the beginnings and endings of famous pirates like Benjamin Hornigold, Edward Teach a.k.a. Blackbeard, Sam Bellamy, and Anne Bonny. Combined with interviews from historians, the series features actors performing these roles aboard actual ships and playing out scenes that rival the cinematography of the Pirates of the Caribbean series. It’s a succinct, entertaining, and honest account of how these men and women took autonomy over their own lives by going against the tyranny of a monarch and its repressive values.

If you are curious about the timelines, actual events, and motivations behind these brackish buccaneers, check out this trailer and give The Lost Pirate Kingdom a try!

Monica’s Musings : Anxious People

Anxious People by Fredrik Backman

“We don’t have a plan, we just do our best to get through the day, because there’ll be another one coming along tomorrow.”

― Fredrik Backman, Anxious People

Summary:

Viewing an apartment normally doesn’t turn into a life-or-death situation, but this particular open house becomes just that when a failed bank robber bursts in and takes everyone in the apartment hostage. As the pressure mounts, the eight strangers begin slowly opening up to one another and reveal long-hidden truths.

My thoughts:

I enjoyed every part of this book. As the reader, you get to know each of the characters personally and see into their lives. The main question throughout the story is how did they all get to this point. Since the author lets you meet the hostages, bank robber, and police officers, the story is constantly developing and making more sense. There were a lot of twists that I was not expecting. It was not violent or gory in any way. This book is sarcastic and funny while also being emotional and thoughtful.

Trigger Warnings: Talk of Suicide, Depression, Anxiety

Terese’s Thoughts: The Naked Don’t Fear the Water

The Naked Don’t Fear the Water by Matthieu Aikins

First Line: At first light, I leaned against the window and looked down at the mountains.

Summary: Matthieu Aikins is a young Canadian reporter who living in and reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan. While there, he befriends Omar, a local translator and driver who worked closely with U.S. Special Forces and found himself on the front lines more than once. Omar longs for the freedoms of Europe and the United States and he is devastated when his visa application to the U.S. is denied. Although Omar is desperate to get out, he also has a hard time committing to leaving because he is head over heels in love with Laila, whose conservative father will not permit her to marry a man of such little means.

In 2016, Omar and Matthieu decide to leave together, following the smuggler’s road to escape to Europe. Matthieu leaves his passport behind, passing as Afghan to experience the journey as a true refugee would, alongside Omar. Of course, he is also acutely aware that at any time he could call and escape the perils that so many cannot. The book details the many steps along their journey as the pair encounter cops, guards, activists, cross several borders, and get to know fellow refugees from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, and Africa–all searching for a better life for themselves and their families.

My Thoughts: This book offers a straight-forward, first-hand account of what their underground journey looks like, and it’s fascinating all the way through. So often, refugees are lumped together into a single entity in the news. In this book, we get to know who some of these people truly are. We hear about their hopes for the future, and we gain an understanding of the countless barriers to achieving freedom they encounter. As wars continue to rage and economic inequality increases across the globe, our refugee crisis only worsens. I wish anyone who had a negative view of immigrants would get to know the individuals themselves by listening to or reading their stories, and then maybe they’d have more empathy. I understand immigration is a complex issue, but in my mind, the world could use all the empathy and understanding it can get.

In addition to being a story about Afghan refugees, this book is also a story of friendship, an adventure tale, and a love story. It is hopeful as much as it is heartrending.

FYI: As a follow-up, listen to this interview with Aikins on the Longform Podcast from after the release of the book, and the fall of the Afghan government.