What’s Ashley Reading?: The Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

First line: How easy it was to disappear.

Summary: It is 1893. Chicago is hosting the World’s Fair. All eyes are on America. Told through intertwining narratives following the dreamers and architects of one of the largest expositions ever and the serial killer who used to fair to attract his victims.

My Thoughts: I was very excited to start this. I just read about the victims of Jack the Ripper so obviously it was time to read up on H. H. Holmes, America’s first serial killer. And I had heard great things about Erik Larson’s books. However, I was a little disappointed. I loved the chapters about Holmes and his “Murder Castle” but they were too short. More time and pages were devoted to the World’s Fair. I get that it was a very important piece of American history but it was very dry. I slugged through about two thirds of the book before I decided to skip each of these chapters and just focus on Holmes.

Herman Webster Mudgett aka
H. H. Holmes

I was astounded at how long Holmes was able to go undetected while committing his crimes. He spent years avoiding notice. Even though murder is his most notorious crime he was a mastermind at other ways to deceive. Larson always pointed out his striking blue eyes and charming demeanor. It is easy to imagine him swindling his unsuspecting victims. He used his charms to avoid debt collectors, create alias and marry several women. With these skills he was a very “successful” man. He accumulated wealth and many people liked him. It is hard to imagine that someone like that could be as cold-blooded as he was.

I have to point out that even though I gave up on the fair chapters that they were very detailed and well researched. This would be a perfect book for lovers of Chicago history and architectural history. I loved looking at pictures from the fair. It looks stunning. Truly a wonder of the modern world. Even though they had many setbacks and struggles during the construction they pulled off an amazing feat.

FYI: A great young adult historical fiction set in Holmes’ Chicago is Capturing the Devil by Kerri Maniscalco. It is the 4th book in the series and I highly recommend them all!

*This is my pick for category #12 (A book by an author slated to visit Kansas in 2020) for the ReadICT challenge.*

From Reader to Writer: Character Misbelief

One of the great joys of writing stories is creating characters. It’s so much fun to envision what someone might look like, sound like, and be like in the world of your story. Any writer familiar with pre-planning stages will be familiar with those lengthy character bios and protagonist worksheets that make you answer every question about your character from their favorite subject in school to their worst fears. But as I’ve been researching more into writing techniques, I’ve stumbled upon a fundamental question that writers don’t often ask of their characters; what does my character believe to be true despite that truth actually being a lie? In essence, what is this character’s misbelief?

The whole point of telling a story at the point which you tell it is because it’s literally the most important moment in your character’s life. This story, this sequence of events, will essentially alter their entire world. How can someone’s life be completely transformed? When they realize that something they so intensely believed is actually the furthest thing from the truth.

Think about one of your favorite stories. How does the character change from the beginning to the end? Most likely, it’s because something that they believed in heatedly is actually not what is true at all, and usually that truth is a central theme in the story.

For example, a character could start the story believing that they are unworthy, perhaps because somewhere in their backstory, an incident occurred that made them think this. Then the story launches into full form, dragging the character through experiences that alter their sense of self and towards an a-ha moment where that truth is revealed as a lie and their sense of worthiness develops. Viewing things like plot and character development in this way versus simply seeing a story as a sequence of events has really helped me dig deeper into my own writing.

If you’re interested in exploring character misbelief, I recommend reading Story Genius by Lisa Cron or checking out young adult author Abbie Emmons’ YouTube Channel. Both are great resources for writers!

What’s Ashley Reading?: The Little Book of Hygge

The Little Book of Hygge by Meik Wiking

First line: Hooga? Hhyooguh? Heurgh? It is not important how you choose to pronounce or even spell hygge. To paraphrase one of the greatest philosophers of our time—Winnie-the-Pooh—when asked how to spell a certain emotion, “You don’t spell it, you feel it.”

Summary: Meik Wiking is the CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, Denmark. In this small book he delves into the Danish word, hygge (pronounced hoo-ga). It is a lifestyle of comfy blankets, delicious food and lots of candles.

My Thoughts: It is that dark and dreary time of year. It is cold outside. Nothing sounds better than a warm blanket and a cup of tea. This is where hygge comes in. All I want to do is hygge now. And I have been trying to achieve it since finishing this book. Each evening I snuggle with my dog and a blanket while watching a favorite TV show or reading a good book.

I love how the author breaks down what hygge is and how to do it. Even though many Danes have different ideas about what is essential to hygge they all agree that it is comfort. The illustrations were pleasant and beautiful. If you are looking for something to help you get through the cold winter months than pick this up! And let us know how you hygge.

FYI: This is the first of several books by Wiking about how to find happiness like the Danes.

*This is my pick for category #2 (A fix-it, how-to, or self-help book) for the ReadICT challenge.*

Read-Alongs aka Parental Game Changers

As a parent I sometimes struggle with balancing screen time with book time. Kids seem to naturally gravitate to the screens in their lives. So I love it when I find something that can bridge this gap! The Read-Along Collection on the Libby App solves this on-going dilemma. 

The Derby Public Library has over 400 Read-Along picture and early reader books ready for you to borrow. Each book is read aloud to your child, pages automatically turning, and the words are highlighted as they are said. Even for pre-readers, these help develop those literacy skills that will help them thrive in school.

Plus they are fun! To further entice your kiddo, some of their favorite television and movie characters can be found: Dora the Explorer, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Blaze, Paw Patrol, and more! 

To find these books:

  1.  Open the Libby App, scroll down a bit
  2.  Click on Explore
  3.  Click on Guide: Kids, scroll down some more
  4.  Click Read-Alongs

 From there employ the filters to find just the perfect title, even non-fiction is available. So for those times you can’t make it into the library to pick up new books, long road trips, or when you just need 5 whole minutes of peace, Read-Alongs are here to save the day!

What’s Ashley Reading?: When Women Ruled the World

When Women Ruled the World by Kara Cooney

The cover image is the famous bust of Nefertiti.

First line: In the fifth century B.C., thousands of years after her lifetime, the Greek historian Herodotus wrote about a certain Nitocris, a queen whose husband-brother had been murdered by conspirators.

Summary: Egyptologist Kara Cooney takes us back to Ancient Egypt and the rule of six remarkable female kings. In a time where men ruled everything these women were able to rise to the highest position in the ancient world using their own cunning. Using years of research and her own deductions we look at their rise to power, their reign and their eventual fall from grace.

My Thoughts: Before starting this book I had only heard of three of these female pharaohs: Hatshepsut, Nefertiti and Cleopatra. I was really excited to delve deeper into each of their lives and reigns but I got the extra bonus of learning about three other incredible women from Ancient Egypt. Each of them came to power in different ways. Some through marriage, others religion, and by default as well. Cooney does a fantastic job giving the background of each pharaoh’s dynasty and the events leading up to their reign.

The fact that we know so much about events from 5,000 years ago is astounding to me. The Egyptians left lots of details about the reigns of their monarchs either on monuments, temples or tombs. We are very lucky to have these records. And hopefully over time we will discover more as the search continues for more tombs. I really hope that one day we will find the tomb of Nefertiti!

It has been a dream of mine to visit Egypt and see the pyramids. The thought of walking where these god-kings once did would be awe-inspiring. I have long followed the work of Zahi Hawass, a world renowned Egyptologist, but I think I will keep an eye on Kara Cooney as well. She has another book all about Hatshesput which I hope to read soon.

My one critique is the fact that the author tried to compare current events to Egyptian culture. It did not flow well and it takes you out of the mindset of the facts. I skipped those paragraphs. Luckily they were few and far between.

FYI: If you want a historical fiction book similar to this then try Nefertiti by Michelle Moran.

*This is my pick for #8 (A book by an author who is new to you) in the ReadICT reading challenge.*

Lit Pairings – City of Thieves

City of Thieves by David Benioff

During the Nazis’ brutal siege of Leningrad, Lev Beniov is arrested for looting and thrown into the same cell as a handsome deserter named Kolya. Instead of being executed, Lev and Kolya are given a shot at saving their own lives by complying with an outrageous directive: secure a dozen eggs for a powerful Soviet colonel to use in his daughter’s wedding cake. In a city cut off from all supplies and suffering unbelievable deprivation, Lev and Kolya embark on a hunt through the dire lawlessness of Leningrad and behind enemy lines to find the impossible.

By turns insightful and funny, thrilling and terrifying, City of Thieves is a gripping, cinematic World War II adventure and an intimate coming-of-age story with an utterly contemporary feel for how boys become men.

Usually WWII books just aren’t my jam. I feel like unless you’re a history buff, once you’ve read a few books on the topic you’re good. But I found City of Thieves to be the exception. I’ve never read anything that explained how desperate things got in Leningrad during that time. It was a moving story that will forever be ingrained in my mind.

So how should I write a food related blog centered on a book about war and starvation? Probably a little like my post about The Hunger by Alma Katsu that focused on The Donner Party. Like the Donner Party, the people of Leningrad were rumored to have resorted to cannibalism, but instead of showing you another rib recipe I think we’ll go another route. In City of Thieves you were considered lucky if you could even get your hands on a onion! So, how about you hope your neighbor has a tomato stashed away, you offer up your precious onion, like it’s your first born, and together you could make Tomato Onion Stew. If things started looking up you may find some wild creature roaming the bombed streets. Do your best to catch it, and make Old Fashioned Wild Game Stew. You probably won’t have any veggies to put in it but maybe, just maybe you saved a little of your daily onion and you could drop that in? Sounds like a plan to me!

All kidding aside City of Thieves by David Benioff is a wonderful read. Give it a go and let me know what you think.

What’s Ashley Reading?: Gwendy’s Button Box

Gwendy’s Button Box by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar

First line: There are three ways up to Castle View from the town of Castle Rock: Route 117, Pleasant Road, and the Suicide Stairs.

Summary: Gwendy is a twelve year old girl from the town of Castle Rock. One day while running up the stairs to Castle View she is stopped by a gentleman in a black hat. During their conversation he gives her a box. The box has buttons. Some are harmless but others are not. He tells her that the box is her responsibility and to keep it secret. As the years go by Gwendy notices changes in herself and the world she lives in. Is it the box? And what price does she have to pay for its gifts?

My Thoughts: I had no idea what I was getting in to when I started this book. It seemed to walk the line between a sweet little story and a nightmare. I listened to the audiobook while cross stitching on a Sunday morning. I was completely engrossed in the story. I even gasped and set my stitching down at several points so that I could focus on the story.

When Gwendy first gets the box it appears to be a dream come true. The box spits out silver dollars and chocolates that suppress cravings. Everything in her life starts going better. What’s not to like? But when she starts getting curious about the other buttons I knew something bad was coming. Books like this show how great of a writer Stephen King truly is. He can mix the genres and write an excellent story in less than 200 pages.

FYI: There is a sequel written by the co-author called Gwendy’s Magic Feather.

Random Reading Thoughts: A new year for reading

It’s the first full week of a new year and a new decade (OK, maybe not a new decade depending on who you ask, but that’s beside the point). This fresh start means so many opportunities to revamp, or refresh, or rethink — or not — my reading. It’s a chance to look back at my reading of the past year and see if I’d like to shake things up a bit.

I use Goodreads to track my reading and to keep a loose want-to-read list. I sometimes write reviews, but often I forget those things that pop into my brain while I’m reading that I might like to remember. I don’t stop reading to open the app or get on my computer to jot down notes, but I want to be better so I decided that I am going analog this year and keeping a paper reading journal as well as recording my books on Goodreads.

Do you use Goodreads to track your reading? Do you use it to set reading goals or to keep a to-read list? Tell us in the comments how you use Goodreads and if it helps you read better.

Admittedly, I’ve never been very good at journaling, but maybe if I’m just keeping notes about the books I read it will go better. I’d like to remember better why I love the books I do. I’d also like to be able to look back at books that didn’t work for me and have an idea of why not. I’m also dedicating a small notebook to keeping a list of books I want to read. And taking a page from Modern Mrs. Darcy, I have a goal of doing more than just jotting down the title and author.

I’ve set my Goodreads goal for this year (52), I’ve got my reader’s journal ready to go, and I’ve got a plan for my to-be-read list. I have two reading challenges to participate in — the Modern Mrs. Darcy 2020 challenge and the Wichita Eagle #ReadICT challenge. I think I’m ready to tackle my reading in 2020. Here’s looking at a great year to come in reading!

What’s Ashley Reading?: The Five

The Five by Hallie Rubenhold

First line: There are two versions of the events of 1887. One is very well known, but the other is not.

Summary: Everyone has heard the story of Jack the Ripper. He haunted the streets of Whitechapel preying on women. His victims known as the canonical five are Polly, Annie, Elisabeth, Catherine and Mary Jane. His story has been researched and turned over hundreds of times but very little is actually known about the women whose lives he took. Here are their stories.

My Thoughts: I have recommended this book to anyone and everyone! I was completely engrossed in it. It is thoroughly researched and well written. It reads like fiction and is easy to get caught up in these women’s lives. I found myself hoping for better outcomes as I read even though I knew how each of their stories was a going to end.

Rubenhold brings these women and the times that they lived to the forefront. Everyone thinks that they know the victims. They were prostitutes right? Wrong. Some were but not all five. Each has a story to tell. I could not believe the detail put into their narratives. Using housing records, census, interviews and newspaper reports we get fuller picture of their lives.

Sometimes we romanticize the Victorian time period but it was anything but ideal. People were barely able to care for their families. Housing was not always safe or healthy. Disease, alcoholism and poverty were prevalent. How people survived is astounding.

If you love history, true crime or biographies than this is perfect for you. It is full of information that will keep you reading until the very end.

FYI: There is very little mentioned about Jack the Ripper. This book focuses on the women only and the time that they lived.