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!

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?: 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).

What’s Ashley Reading?: The Book of Cold Cases

The Book of Cold Cases by Simone St. James

First line: The Greer mansion sat high on a hill, overlooking the town and the ocean.

Summary: It’s 1977 in Claire Lake, Oregon. The city is reeling with the murders of two family men on lonely roads at night. With the bodies, a note written by a woman asking to be caught. When the police and the town decide that it is none other than the richest girl in town. Beth Greer lives in the exclusive part of town, seems unfriendly and is seen leaving one of the crime scenes. However, the courts are unable to convict her. For the next forty years she lives quietly in her mansion until a blogger happens to meet her looking for answers.

It’s 2017 in Claire Lake, Oregon. Shea Collins is working as a receptionist in a doctor’s office but at night she runs a blog where she discusses cold cases. Most prominent on the blog is the Lady Killer case which took place in Claire Lake in 1977. Many theories circulate on who actually committed the murders and when Shea gets the chance to interview the main suspect, Beth Greer, she pushes down her fears from childhood to finally get some answers.

My Thoughts: This sounds like your normal thriller with a killer and a secret. But with St. James, that is never the case. She brings in the creep factor that I had to put the book down one night, hoping that I would be able to sleep. And it was not an overly scary scene but it was written perfectly to scare with little detail. Even with the scary bits I could not put this down. I had a third of the book left to read and I decided to just sit down and read till it was done. I had to find out the ending and what twist the author was going to throw at us. It did not disappoint. It was scary, exciting and fulfilling for the characters and the reader. I just finished this and I already want her next book!

FYI: A little scary and some violence against children.

What’s Ashley Reading?: Nine Lives

Nine Lives by Peter Swanson

First line: Jonathan Grant, unless he let her know ahead of time that he couldn’t make it, always visited on Wednesday evening.

Summary: Nine people have received a letter in the mail with no return postmark and inside is a list of nine names. None of the names seem familiar to the people on the list. Many of them assume that it is some technical error until one of them is found murdered. Coincidence? Maybe. Until another of the people on the list is found shot in the back while out on his morning run. Detective Winslow is also on the list and she is determined to find out what the connection is and who is hunting them.

My Thoughts: I love Peter Swanson’s books. This is my third one but I need to go back and read his older stuff soon too. The way he incorporates classic mysteries into his stories also give me more books to read but adds an extra layer of intrigue into the plot. In this one he uses the similarities with And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie.

Each of the chapters were really short and they were organized into how many people are left on the list. As it counted down the suspense continued to build as I waited for the next death or a big reveal. And just before Swanson gave the reader a big hint of who was behind the deaths, I figured it out. It was genius. As a reader, and one that has read a lot of Agatha Christie lately, I can see he enjoys her work and draws inspiration from it too.

But I think my favorite part of Swanson’s newest book was the relationships in it. The characters that lived longer into the story were given interesting storylines that made me want to read just for their interactions. It made their impending doom much more heartbreaking.

FYI: Lots of death.