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.

What’s Ashley Reading?: Misery

Misery by Stephen King

First line: umber whunnnn

Summary: After an accident in the snow of the Rockies, Paul Sheldon, is rescued by his biggest fan. Paul, the writer of the Misery novels, is found on a roadside by Annie Wilkes who takes him to her home to “care for him”. However, she is also keeping him captive. As Paul lays in agony in Annie’s farmhouse he is forced to write another Misery novel just for her and if he doesn’t she is willing to take extreme measures to punish him.

My Thoughts: I remember watching Misery years ago. I knew the basic storyline but not the details of it. Several months ago I picked up a worn old paperback at a used bookstore and decided it was time to enter the world of Stephen King once again. This is definitely not my favorite of his novels but it did keep me reading until the end.

Annie is crazy! During one scene where she is punishing Paul I literally was sick to my stomach. I had to take a moment to gather myself in order to keep reading. It was just too real and gruesome.

But during the middle of the book I struggled to keep going because it just seemed monotonous. And this may have been a ploy to show the long time that Paul spent in Annie’s custody and his mindset of time dragging on. It is understandable but it seemed more like filler than story. But the ending is where the true craziness happens. I always think of the movie Scream when reading horror movies because the villain always comes back for one last scare!

FYI: A classic King novel but in my opinion not his best.

What’s Ashley Reading?: Crazy Rich Asians

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

First line: Nicholas Young slumped into the nearest seat in the hotel lobby, drained from the sixteen-hour flight from Singapore, the train ride from Heathrow Airport, and the trudging through the rain-soaked streets.

Summary: Rachel Chu has been dating Nicholas Young for nearly two years. When he asks her to spend the summer in Singapore she willingly accepts. However, arriving in Singapore she learns that the humble man she knows is part of one of the wealthiest families in Asia.

My Thoughts: Before leaving for my trip to the United Kingdom I was looking for a good vacation book. I scoured several used bookstores and my own shelves at home. Finally I found a mass market paperback of Crazy Rich Asians and felt like this was perfect!

I had seen the movie, which I loved, and decided it was time to read the book too. I am so happy I did. It was fun and ridiculous! The amount of money the people in the book have is just mind-blowing. I kept gasping as prices were thrown around in the book. But other than the money I liked the characters especially Astrid. She is Nick’s cousin who is fashionable and kind to everyone. Each chapter followed different characters as they navigated the weeks leading up to the wedding of the year in Singapore.

I finished the book just as we were arriving back at King’s Cross Station in London, the night before we were to fly home. I frantically looked at all the bookstores at Heathrow hoping to find a copy of the second book but no luck. But as soon as I got back home I downloaded a copy of the audiobook for my drive home from Colorado. I have now finished book two and am currently working on book three!

FYI: A great vacation read!

What’s Ashley Reading?: Black Tudors

Black Tudors by Miranda Kaufmann

First line: In April 1645 Sir John Wynter burnt his home to the ground rather than see it fall into Parliamentary hands.

Summary: Miranda Kaufmann dives into a little known part of the Tudor world. She explores the lives of Africans in Tudor society. Using primary sources the lives of several black people are brought to readers of the twenty-first century.

My Thoughts: It sounds so stupid of me but this is never something I really considered until hearing a podcast by Historic Royal Palaces featuring Miranda. But I found it absolutely intriguing. There is never a lot of documentation about anyone from 500 years ago but nearly nothing about Africans during this time either. However, Miranda was able to piece together many different sources to discover what the lives were like for these people during this time.

I learned about a man who sailed with Sir Francis Drake as he circumnavigated the globe. And a prostitute who was highly sought after because of her soft skin. A diver who helped excavate and salvage items from the sinking of the Mary Rose, King Henry VIII’s warship. Also I discovered a woman who owned her own cow which she was able to use for feeding herself and earning an income. These people were not slaves but free. They lived alongside the Tudor population and participated in society. As a reader of all things Tudor I found this to be a perfect addition to my knowledge. I am glad I read and was introduced to these people and now I can pass on their stories to others.

It always amazes me when a historian can find these little bits of history and bring them to life for readers. It was eye opening and interesting. I would love to read more about these people and the lives they lived. My one criticism is that the author spends a lot of time laying the foundations for the time or events. But this is because there is so little about the actual individuals that she needed to give context. I wish, and maybe someday we will, we knew more about these Black Tudors.

FYI: Some language from sources can be a little crude.

What’s Ashley Reading?: Daughters of a Dead Empire

Daughters of a Dead Empire by Carolyn Tara O’Neil

First line: I saw the fire first.

Summary: In this alternate history about the Russian Revolution, Anastasia Romanov has escaped the Bolsheviks and is running for her life. She stumbles into a village where she meets a young Bolshevik girl, Evgenia, who grudgingly helps this mysterious aristocratic girl. As the two girls with very different views of the world try to survive they learn that the world is not as black and white as they originally thought.

My Thoughts: Ever since high school I have been fascinated by Anastasia Romanov. The thought that this young girl escaped a tragic death is a mystery that has boggled many for years. Unfortunately, Anastasia did not escape but I still enjoy reading fiction about what her life after escaping death would have been like.

At the beginning I was very annoyed with both of the girls but I think that was what the author was intending. Each of them were stubbornly only believing what they knew rather than considering other points of view. But as the story progressed each one was faced with the realities of the Revolution and destroying the beliefs they held so dear.

I enjoyed the growing relationship between the girls. There was no romance in the book. It centered on friendship and the internal battle between conscience/ideologies and love.

As well as being entertaining it was informative too. I learned about the involvement of Czech soldiers in the Russian Revolution. They had their own battalion and were promised independence for the Czech people if the Imperial Army won the Revolution.

Since this took place during the Russian Revolution there was lots of violence. However, the violence was not always focused on the armies but much of it hurt the peasants they were fighting for. It is easy to forget that many civilian deaths happened alongside soldier deaths. It was hard to read but it was real and needs to be remembered.

FYI: Lots of death, violence and torture.

Terese’s Thoughts: Women Talking

Women Talking by Miriam Toews

First Line: My name is August Epp—irrelevant for all purposes, other than that I’ve been appointed the minute-taker for the women’s meetings because the women are illiterate and unable to do it themselves.

Summary: In an isolated Mennonite community, it has come to light that some of the men have been using a powerful poisonous spray, typically used to sedate livestock, to knock out and sexually assault women and children during the night. They awaken with no memory of the experience. But this all happens before we meet the women and girls of Molotschna. The title of this book is apt, as the “action” consists of the women talking in a barn, trying to decide whether they should:

  1. Do nothing
  2. Stay and Fight
  3. Leave

The men of the village, meanwhile, have been taken into custody but will be returning soon. As pressure mounts, the women argue, laugh, and try to define what it means to believe in God, to forgive, to be free, and to love. They name as their goals safety for themselves and for their children, and the freedom to think. Through it all, they are also enjoying each other’s company.

My Thoughts: One of the reviewers I trust, Molly Young, raves about Miriam Toews. She recommended starting with Women Talking so I picked it up. I will admit, the subject matter made me apprehensive to start reading. I thought it might be too dark, too depressing– especially since the book is based on real events. And while it is true that those events are depressingly grim, the book is anything but. For me, there is something so restorative and fortifying about spending an evening surrounded by women. (It’s also typically a lot of fun!) Reading this book had the same effect on me.

The only man in the barn is the minute-taker August, an awkward outcast and appreciator of the random fact who is in love with Ona, a nervous and thoughtful dreamer. The following conversation between the two is an example of the frequent, whimsical interludes from the tense atmosphere in the barn, and it tickled me:

“Did you know, I say, that there is a butterfly called the Comma?

Ona gasps.

It’s such an untoward reaction, so comical.

Is that so? she asks.

Yes, I say, it’s called the Comma because–but Ona stops me.

No, she says, let me guess. Because it flits about from leaf to stem to petal, pausing only briefly on its way? Because its journey is its story, never stopping, only pausing, always moving.

I smile and nod. Exactly, I say, that is why!

Ona punches the palm of her hand: Aha! She goes back to her seat.

But it’s not true, this is not why the Comma butterfly has its name. And of course there are periods within texts, journeys. Stoppage. The real reason, banal, is that the butterfly has a shape on the underside of its wing that resembles a comma. I don’t know why I let her believe otherwise, but someday, perhaps, it will be clear.”

FYI: Miriam Toews herself grew up in an isolated Mennonite village in Canada (not the one this book is based on).