Top Five Books of 2015

I completed the 50 Books Challenge by late November, a feat that both surprised and pleased me. I went on to read a few more and will likely round off the year at 54 if I finish Station Eleven by New Years Eve.

Of the 50+ books I read in 2015, I chose five as favorites, along with an honorable mention. To meet the criteria of “favorite,” the book had to 1) keep me interested 100 percent of the time, and 2) be one that I’d recommend to anyone and everyone. Note that these aren’t books that were written in 2015. Some are several years old.

I’ve placed them in order, so I’ll start with number five. (Each title is linked to my original review.)

PatronSaintofLiarsNo. 5: The Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett. This was my introductory book to Ann Patchett’s writing, and since reading this one I’ve acquired two more from resale shops. She is a beautiful storyteller and in this novel weaves together three points of view regarding an unwanted pregnancy, an escape to a nunnery, and a slew of lies used to comfort oneself. It is a revealing story about the things we do to make ourselves feel better.

No. 4: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. This one had me at the start because I simply could not conceive of doing away with one child to appease another. Of course the plot isn’t that simple. Not far into the story we learn that Fern wasn’t a normal child, and the family in which Fern was placed wasn’t a normal household. This book is so well thought out that the author practically spoon feeds readers proportionate bites of information at the proper time. It is a must-read for animal lovers.

No. 3The Circle by Dave Eggers. This book is the cautionary tale of our time. It is the 1984 of our generation. Though every character is an archetype and the equation of the plot is semi-predictable, it is a wild ride down a road that could very well be our future. Read with caution and let’s go off the grid together.

The GoldfinchNo. 2: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Not everyone would agree that this book was a home run. A few folks I know tried to read it and couldn’t get through, but that was not the case for me at all. I came to care for Theo, the main character so dearly that I couldn’t bear for the story to end. In my mind, he exists still. The story is so much more than the journey of a painting. It’s about how we long to make sense of things we don’t understand.

No. 1: Night Film by Marisha Pessl. This shouldn’t surprise you one bit. If I know you in real life, then I’ve tried to push this book in your hands. It’s not literary like The Goldfinch and it’s not endearing like We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. It’s not rooted in reality like The Circle and it’s not heartstring-tugging like The Patron Saint of Liars. It’s just pure reading fun. It sucks you in and won’t let you go until the very last word on the very last page. It’s CRAZY and bizarre and a touch scary.

Night FilmNight Film wins because it put me in a trance for four days and that’s the kind of magic I want out of a book. I read it at every free moment and hardly fed my children because I couldn’t put it down. That’s the sort of power I’d like to have in storytelling, and since I don’t have that power, I’ll give a hardy handshake to the writers that do.

The honorable mention goes to Tana French, writer of two books I read this year and fully enjoyed: In the Woods and Faithful Place. They are part of an ongoing crime series set in Dublin and I plan to continue reading onward.

What are YOUR favorite books from 2015?

Book Review: The Cuckoo’s Calling

cuckoos callingEvery Harry Potter fan knows what happened after JK Rowling moved on from the wizarding world. She wrote a subpar book called The Casual Vacancy (which I didn’t finish), then started a detective series under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. The third book in the Cormoran Strike series was just released, so I presume her switch in genre was a good one.

I picked up The Cuckoo’s Calling with great reservation because The Casual Vacancy was a disappointment. Granted, I had unreasonable expectations of recapturing the magic of Harry Potter in a book about the muggle world. But still, it was dreadfully boring.

When I found The Cuckoo’s Calling in a discount bin for a few bucks, and I knew the third in the series was being released, I thought surely it was going to be that stellar post-Harry Potter read I’d been waiting for.

It was okay.

Private Detective Cormoran Strike is a war veteran and amputee struggling to keep his small business afloat. Riddled with debt and few cases, he can scarcely afford temporary secretaries. Then a financial savior arrives. John Bristow insists his adopted sister Lula – a half-white, half-black goddess of a supermodel – did not commit suicide but was in fact murdered. Strike knows the Bristow family, as he was friends with Charlie, John’s deceased older brother. With an aging mother and a dead father, Strike is sympathetic towards Bristow, as the family had seen a fair amount of tragedy. In desperate need of money and out of respect for an old friendship, Strike takes the case to determine whether Lula jumped off her balcony to her death or if she was pushed.

There’s also Robin, the latest in temp secretaries who’s lured by the intrigue of detective work. I’ll spoil this part for you and say Robin is eventually hired on to be his full-time employee. Every detective needs a sidekick.

What transpires in The Cuckoo’s Calling is a flurry of filthy rich people, along with a few who ride their coat tails hoping for scraps from the fine life. Lula’s family of origin come into play, as she was a mixed-race little girl adopted into a wealthy, grieving family. She was the token child meant to bring joy, but her emotional and mental instability left her unable to perform. On account of her unmatched beauty, she was scooped up by the entertainment industry where she cultivated her own fortune and ran around with the rich and famous.

The narrative is a real-time unfolding of Strike’s thought processes, his investigative interviews, and the big reveal at the end where he confronts the killer and explains how the crime was committed. It is a classic crime thriller with spot-on archetypes, red herrings, and an underdog for a protagonist. I challenge you to predict the ending. Even if you have a whiff of who did it, there are pieces of evidence that Rowling – er, Galbraith – throw in at the end to make the case air tight.

So why was this book just “okay”? First, it was really long. I’d say it was about 150 pages too long. All of Strike’s backstory felt unnecessary, but I can only presume that Rowling wants us to have a tertiary knowledge of his past for plot points in future books. Some backstory is helpful in fleshing out a character, but it dragged on. Also adding to the book’s length was the punctuation of Strike’s every move.

A second reason why the story didn’t leave me reeling was because I couldn’t latch onto a character that I wholeheartedly loved or hated. (This was the primary problem I had with The Casual Vacancy.) Strike is clever and hardy, a true underdog you want to root for, and Robin the secretary is likable enough. However, the cast of ruffians surrounding Lula’s death are obnoxious. None of them were diverse enough from one another to stand out.

Finally, in an effort to be completely transparent, I think I’m jaded. Even though one cannot compare Rowling’s Harry Potter series to “Galbraith’s” Cormoran Strike series, one subconsciously does. The similarity in writing is definitely there since Rowling loves her adverbs. Plus, there’s been no attempt to hide the pseudonym, so Harry Potter fans are going into these crime thrillers knowing exactly who wrote them. I just couldn’t separate the two.

So, if you AREN’T a Harry Potter fan and love crime thrillers, you will love The Cuckoo’s Calling. You’ll probably love The Silkworm and Career of Evil.  If you ARE a Harry Potter fan and love crime thrillers and can mentally separate Rowling from Galbraith, you will probably love them to.

As for me, JK Rowling is the author of Harry Potter, and I think that’s where she’ll have to remain.

Book Review: The Martian

The MartianAs I’ve chipped away at the 50 Books Challenge of 2015, I’ve made mental notes along the way counting the top five (or ten) books I’ve loved the most. I just finished The Martian this morning and I’m telling you with confidence that this one is definitely in the Top Five.

In short, botanist and astronaut Mark Watney was one of six crew members on a mission to Mars. While on the surface, a dust storm blew in and Watney suffered an injury that led his crew to believe he died. They evacuated, leaving his body behind.

But he wasn’t dead, and unlike any sort of distance we could imagine on Earth, one just can’t turn around and go back to Mars.

At nearly 400 pages, The Martian is an intense but often humorous rescue mission that is entirely and completely believable. As people on Earth and in space scramble to find a way to rescue him, Watney crafts his own makeshift Martian home with the intention to survive until someone comes back to get him – whenever that might be. Through his almost daily logs, readers watch as he puts his botanist skills to use and calculates exactly how many sols (Martian days) he has until he’s run out of options, all while listening to disco, watching reruns of Threes Company, and reading Agatha Christie (pilfering his crew mates’ personal items).

There’s a lot of math, but don’t let that deter you, because even after he’s tried to explain himself to us in space language he boils the situation down to language we can all understand. Only a few times did my eyes glaze over.

Plot wise, the story is spot on. The tension builds, it hangs, it pulls and tugs. The characters are classic and true. I hope the movie cast reflects this.

Speaking of, unless you’re totally out of touch, you know the movie version is out in theaters and I’ve heard nothing but positive reviews. Now that I’ve finished seeing The Martian in my imagination, I’m ready to see it on the big screen. If the cinematography in The Martian is anything like Interstellar, then it must be seen in the theater.

Buy The Martian here. 

Book Review: Wildwood

WildwoodIt took me a while to finish this book, and not just because it’s 540 pages. Granted, the book is not the standard 5.25 x 8.25 and is instead an odd 6 x 7.75, which makes the pages short and stubby. Plus, there’s a smattering of really gorgeous illustrations that I’m tempted to pull out and frame.

Still, it’s a long book and I’ll say right now that if it was 200 pages shorter, I would’ve enjoyed it more.

In an attempt to be extremely brief, Wildwood is an adventurous tale of 12-year-old Prue who’s in charge of her one-year-old brother, Mac, and he’s abducted by a murder of crows. (Did you know a flock of crows is called a murder? Neither did I. Great imagery, no?)

Mac and the crowsWhen Prue heads into the Impassable Wilderness, the random woodsy acreage outside of Portland, Oregon, she’s followed by a classmate, Curtis, whose awkwardness is palpable yet endearing. Prue can’t shake him, so he joins her in the Impassable Wilderness in search of Mac and that murder of crows.

They soon learn that the Impassable Wilderness is called Wildwood, a magical place where animals are talking citizens and they are currently entangled in a civil war. The pair get separated after a run-in with an army of coyotes and they remain separated for much of the book. Curtis is under the influence of the Dowager Countess, while Prue continues the search for her brother and finds counsel among the aviaries.

prue-and-penny-3

Did I mention how lovely the illustrations are?

Eventually Mac is found and a huge background of information unfolds. We find out his abduction wasn’t altogether unexpected. I’ll leave you with that.

Did I like it? Well, sure, I guess. It’s a children’s book – I’d say middle grades – so it was easy to read, and I always enjoy a world where animals can talk. Prue is a headstrong girl who’s determined to do the right thing and has no time for nonsense. My kind of girl!

Plus who doesn’t love a devoted sister who descends into another world, risking her own life, to save her baby brother? (Um, Labyrinth?).

Prue McKeelSpeaking of, there are very clear reflections of other well-known fantasies (Chronicles of Narnia, the Wizard of Oz), so much that I ended up looking for those parallels within the story rather than enjoying the story on its own. One could argue that there are no original stories, that every work is derived from ancient tragedies and comedies, but it’s far too easy to read Wildwood and think, “Wow. Curtis and the Dowager are just like Edmund and the White Witch.” It’s unoriginal to distraction.

Yet, maybe that’s the point. Maybe Meloy wanted to weave these themes and tropes together to capture their all-encompassing magic into one work. Maybe he wanted to harness the essence of Portland and expand it through enchantment. Maybe he wanted children to experience a soft opening to other fantasies while letting adults sink in with familiarity. I dunno. How’s that for literary criticism!

Speaking of the author, one of the reasons I wanted to read this book (aside from its gorgeous cover) was because Colin Meloy is a singer/songwriter and member of The Decemberists, a folksy band out of Portland. I enjoy their music, so when I heard one of the band members was writing fiction in his down time, I was all over it.

My final verdict is that Wildwood was lovely departure from reality and it came along at the right time in my stack of books to be read. The distraction from real life was necessary, and even though it dragged in some parts, I was still curious enough to know whether or not Prue would ever find her brother, what would become of Curtis, and whether or not Wildwood would be exposed to the outside world. There are two other books in the series, and though I don’t have them yet, they are on my list to purchase – if only for the illustrations.

Buy Wildwood here.

Book review: The Shock of the Fall

When I saw Silver Linings Playbook a couple of years ago, in which one of the main characters is bipolar, I left the theater completely exhausted. The up-and-down mania was so well played that I felt I’d just experienced the episodes firsthand.

I felt the same way after finishing The Shock of the Fall.

The-Shock-Of-The-Fall-coverNarrated by Matthew Homes primarily from his stay in a mental institution, we learn that he’s never gotten over the sudden and strange death of his brother, Simon, who had Down Syndrome. In fact, it might have been Simon’s accident that spurred Matthew’s own neurosis, but that’s never made entirely clear.

When I say the story is narrated by Matthew, it is indeed written in first person, but based on Matthew’s mental state, I was never sure if his version of the story was true, embellished, or a version that exists only in his head. Some bits are told in the traditional straightforward manner, and others are told haphazardly, via typewriter in his room at the institution, where he’s vowed to get out all of his words and explain the last decade to us.

But his words are all over the place. It’s clear early on that Matthew is sick, and for the sake of avoiding spoilers, I’ll leave it that.

We meet Matthew’s parents, who are strangely, oddly at ease with their son’s neurosis, and his one friend, Jacob, who doesn’t seem to mind Matthew’s violence and overlooks other oddball behaviors that scare away everyone else.

There are a number of nurses and institution employees (not nearly as entertaining as they are in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) who pop in and out of the story, but even then I couldn’t fully rely on Matthew’s interpretation of events. After every chapter (if you could call them chapters), I wondered, “Was that real or imagined?”

This isn’t to say the book is bad. In fact, it’s won plenty of accolades to prove its genius. The author, Nathan Filer, worked in a mental hospital, an insight that showed itself throughout the story. No, it’s not bad, but it’s hard. It’s not an easy beach read; it’s not a book to breeze through. If you are interested in reading a truly unique work and have a dual interest in mental illness expressed through fiction, then this book is for you.

Buy The Shock of the Fall here. 

snakes and laddersRandom note: The story is set in Bristol, and even though the narrative isn’t fraught with English culture, one thing that stood out to me several times was Matthew’s references to the board game Snakes & Ladders. If you’re like me, you’re thinking, “You mean Chutes & Ladders? That preschool game that never ends because as soon as you reach the top of the board you land on a slide and go back to the start?” Yeah, that game.

After a quick Googling, I learned that Chutes & Ladders originated in India as Snakes & Ladders, a far scarier version that I would’ve hated even more than the Americanized version. SNAKES & Ladders. Sliding down the backs of SNAKES is not my idea of fun.

So there you go.

Book Review: Animal Farm

animalfarmAt first I didn’t think I’d review this book since I figure everyone read it in school, but considering I didn’t read it in school it’s a fair assumption that Animal Farm wasn’t on everyone’s summer reading list.

First, Animal Farm is a novella. It’s super short, which makes it a great choice for someone who’s trying to read 50 books in a year while homeschooling her children, freelancing, writing a novel, and a training for a half marathon. Time is valuable, so a quick read here and there is helpful.

Second, Animal Farm is an allegory – a narrative with a hidden meaning, particularly of religious or political significance. The main characters in the story are farm animals who are tired of being used and abused by humans and seek an autonomous existence from their tyranny. Once they establish themselves as self-ruling, they create a pseudo-utopia and strive to live in peace with one another according to the Seven Commandments:

1. Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy.

2. Whatever goes upon four legs, or has wings, is a friend.

3. No animal shall wear clothes.

4. No animal shall sleep in a bed.

5. No animal shall drink alcohol.

6. No animal shall kill any other animal.

7. All animals are equal.

Of course, the dream starts to fade, as they are likely to, when leaders arise from the pool of equality. The pigs are self-appointed leaders of Animal Farm (formerly called Manor Farm) and they quickly move into a dictator position.

George Orwell (pen name for Eric Blair) was openly supportive of and a believer in socialism, and Animal Farm is specifically written as an allegory of the Russian Revolution. Mr. Jones, the human owner of Manor Farm, is the czar of Russia who could not keep his country organized during World War I. Old Major, a prized elderly pig, is Lenin, an idealist who planted the ideas of a rebellion in his people. Napoleon (Joseph Stalin) is a young pig who rivals another young pig, Snowball (Leon Trotsky), for dominion. Squealer, a third young pig, is Napoleon’s chief officer and master of persuasion, a key character used to kick Snowball off the farm.

There are work horses are repeat mantras to themselves all day, a quiet, wise donkey who knows what’s coming, a parroted raven who serves as a mega-phone for the pigs, slave-driven hens who must produce eggs and then more eggs, and so on. Each animal represents an ideology or social class, and there are other human characters that mirror historical figures, like Fredrick, a farmer from a neighboring field, who forges an alliance with the pigs to rule Animal Farm. You know, like Adolf Hitler.

Other elements of farm life hold significance too, like the barn (the working class) and the windmill (the pigs’ ability to manipulate the other animals).

It’s helpful to have some sort of working knowledge about the Russian Revolution and subsequent power plays across Europe to fully grasp the point of Animal Farm – which is, socialism works as long as no one gets greedy. As long as no one puts himself above the others, a world of leveled class structures is possible.

Some are more equal

As with humans, inevitably greed surfaces and the power-hungry make new rules. The pigs rule the farm and declare that while all animals are equal, “some animals are more equal than others.” Classes are once again separated and oppressed, yet some hang on like desperate believers that the pigs know what’s best for them. There is truth in allegory. 

I’m not sure why I never read this book in high school, but it’s never to late to hit the old summer reading list. For what it’s worth, anti-Marxist material is much more enjoyable when acted out by animals.

Buy Animal Farm here. 

 

 

Book review: Rescue

I think we’ve reached the first book – no, the second book – that I won’t recommend to you, and I feel really crappy about it.

The first book I’m not recommending is Summer People, which I read earlier in the year and didn’t review because I just couldn’t think of what to say. It was really dull and anti-climactic and I felt horrible saying that publicly.

Why do I feel bad? Because my work of fiction is not published and I’m very cautious about saying something negative about a work of fiction that IS published. Three years ago, I would’ve been freer with my words. I would’ve been far more comfortable saying, “Don’t waste your time!” or “That was the most boring piece of drivel ever!” or “Stephenie Meyer is the worse writer of life!” But now that I’ve put myself in a position to be weighed and measured, I’m more cautious. I’m less critical. I know different works speak to different people and everyone’s taste is specific.

RescueNow that I’ve explained myself, let me briefly tell you about Rescue. Webster is an EMT in a small New England town. He’s a generic guy. Nothing overly unique about him. One day he responds to a call that changes the course of his life. A young woman was driving drunk and got in a wreck. For some reason, he’s enamored with this woman – with Sheila. Is she attractive? I guess. He’s not even really sure why he’s drawn to her, but drawn he is, so much that he tracks Sheila down after being released from the hospital. She’s a bit put off by the EMT showing up on her doorstep, but whatever. They start dating! They have a moment of passion and bam – she’s pregnant.

They all-of-a-sudden get married and Sheila starts drinking again. She drives drunk with their baby and gets in a second car crash that results in the other driver getting severely injured. Instead of turning her over to authorities or sending her to rehab, Webster puts her in a car and sends her off. He kicks Sheila out of the state and he raises their daughter, Rowan, on her own.

Fast forward 18 years. Rowan is about to graduate high school. She’s moody. She’s dismissive. She’s a teenager and then some. Webster can’t figure out why. It never occurs to him that she may be missing her phantom mother. She starts drinking. She gets in an accident. Life repeats itself.

In short, Sheila returns and they start the process of sorting out 18 years of emotions.

The end.

I wanted to find something meaningful in this book but I just didn’t. It was a predictable story with characters who weren’t all that likable. Webster had a few redeeming qualities, but nothing to hang on to. There was an ongoing parallel of his EMT rescues mirroring the destruction in his own home, but it wasn’t a clever use of the literary device. Every chapter started with an EMT response to an emergency and every chapter ended with his own life falling apart. The equation was blatant.

So I’m not recommending this book to you unless you’re a diehard Anita Shreve fan and feel compelled to read the entirety of her work. In that case, you can buy Rescue here.

Book Review: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

we are all completely beside ourselvesYou guys. THIS BOOK.

I don’t even know where to begin. Rosemary, the narrator and main character, doesn’t even start her story at the beginning but rather the middle, and that’s because she’s only recently pieced together what really happened in her childhood. She only just learned why her sister, Fern, disappeared and her brother, Lowell, left right after, and why her parents never talk about any of it. Everything changed in what felt like an instant and her memory was clouded by confusion. What’s a five-year-old to think of such things anyway?

Rosemary Cooke is both a victim and a perpetrator, a young woman who cannot maintain relationships beyond the surface, someone who is so marred by her past that the present feels barely real. Her sister was “her other half,” twin-like, but not, so when Fern disappeared, part of Rosemary disappeared too. Her older brother’s departure felt like abandonment. Suddenly she was an only child in a new house with very quiet parents.

It would be a disservice to you if I said any more about it. The flow of this book is perfection, bits of information fed and digested in proper time. Karen Fowler is an award-winning author who writes with clarity and fervor. All of her accolades feel justified and this is the only thing I’ve read of hers.

Though this seems like a random warning, it’s not: if you have a heart for animals, take caution and bring a tissue.

Buy We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves here.

 

Book review: The Art of Fielding

The-Art-of-FieldingHere’s a confession: The only reason I picked up this book was because of its fabulous lettering. The cover is gorgeous.

The second thing that caught my attention was that this is the author’s first novel. I love reading debuts if only for the frame of reference. It’s nice to know where a writer began.

Then I read the inside flap and quick-Googled a review. I found the hardback at our local used bookshop, so the price was right. Sold.

The story centers around five people, all interwoven on the fictional Westish College campus on the shore of Lake Michigan. First, there’s Henry, a baseball prodigy that Mike Schwartz takes under his wing to train and instruct. Mike is a year ahead of Henry and poised to enter law school upon graduation. Henry’s roommate is Owen, an openly gay and impeccably sharp student athlete who indulges in a relationship with the most unlikely person. College president Guert Affenlight is beloved on campus, yet as a never-married, once-a-heartthrob sixty-something year old, he’s still searching for real love. And finally, there’s President Affenlight’s daughter, Pella. She’s just hopped on a plane from San Fransisco, leaving her husband behind for good. The only place she knows to go is Westish.

One can assume these five people have a myriad of interactions that propel the story forward. Chad Harbach approaches each point of view with an authentic voice so you don’t feel like you’re “head jumping” and unable to keep track. Some assumptions are easy to make, others not so much. Against the backdrop of baseball, The Art of Fielding is about difficult relationships, sacrifices unrequited, and the lengths we’ll go to find some version of love and acceptance.

It’s a beautiful story, and even though I’m not a baseball fan I can appreciate the parallels Harbach draws between choices made both on and off the field. You can’t help but root for everyone to succeed in all endeavors. For what it’s worth, the end was my favorite part.

Buy The Art of Fielding here. 

Book Review: Pastrix

Pastrix coverI first heard of Nadia Bolz-Weber about two or three years ago when I was in a heavy place of re-evaluating and reclaiming my faith. Mostly, I was trying to figure out why the God of my teen and young adult years didn’t jive with the God I know today. My sources were changing drastically. Instead of endorsed material from the Southern Baptist Convention, I read books from other denominations that tackled subjects like baptism, hell, women in leadership, homosexuality, communion, and Jesus. (I am flummoxed at how differently denominations handle Jesus!) We also started recognizing the liturgical calendar. The more I read, the more convinced I became that God was much bigger than the box I put him in.

On my list of people to read was Nadia. I’d already read a handful of her blog posts and watched her in the Animate series. Based on her tattoos alone, I was intrigued. When the study group at my church chose Pastrix to read and discuss, I figured it was high time.

First, if you are offended by profanity, take heed. She does not back down from being her authentic self, f-words and all. It doesn’t offend me and I actually appreciate the transparency. Pastors are people, just like the rest of it.

Second, her church, House for All Sinners and Saints, is just that – a house for ALL. It is part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and welcomes every soul through its doors. If the thought of worshiping God with a mixed bag of people makes you uncomfortable, you should definitely read this book.

Onto the book. Instead of being a dissection of the Christian tradition, Nadia uses this memoir as defining her pathway to reclaiming her own faith. She tells stories about her upbringing in the ultra-conservative Church of Christ, her alcohol addiction, her dabbling in other faiths, and ultimately her choice to answer the call to ministry. The term “Pastrix” is used by “some Christians who refuse to recognize female pastors,” a topic I studied and settled a few years back.

The easiest way for me to sum up the book is to list the lessons I learned from it.

1. God is stellar at making something out of nothing. Be it the earth, our bodies, or our souls, He can take absolutely nothing and make it shine. In our total brokenness and despair, He’s right there in the muck working. Always.

2. The Bible tells us that nothing can separate us from God’s love (Romans 8:31-39), so I’m choosing to believe that in its entirety. Nothing can separate us. Not our denominational differences, not our political disagreements, not our sexuality, not our nationality. Nothing. God’s love extends farther than we can see, above and beyond the rainbow and Confederate flags. That truth should comfort you.

3. Communion is a precious, personal, sacred act. No one should be denied it.

4. If we say we are “welcoming,” then our attitudes should reflect that, no matter who walks into our sanctuary – be it a transgendered teen whose parents have rejected him or Ann Coulter. God made them both, after all. Do we extend grace, or don’t we?

5. It’s not over until it’s over. If you are wading in the stagnant waters of your church, try swimming in another river. God is not finished with us until life on this earth is over. Always accept a faith challenge. Always ask questions. And if you want a tattoo, by damn go get one.


Buy Pastrix here.

 

Book Review: The Light Between Oceans

The Light Between OceansThis one took no time to finish because I couldn’t stop wondering how it would end. Major props to M.L. Stedman for pace and tension. Well played.

It’s April 27, 1926. Tom and Isabel Sherbourne live on Janus Island, just off the Australian shore, where Tom works as the lighthouse keeper. They are the only inhabitants of the island and they prefer it that way, except they want a family. Despite their overwhelming desire to have a child, none of their babies live past birth. In her makeshift graveyard on a small part of the island, Isabel has just buried her third baby. The pain is unbearable.

But then a dingy washes up carrying two people – a dead man and a live baby, no older than a month or two. It’s a sign. God has brought them a baby, or at least that’s how Isabel sees it. Tom is fraught with worry. Is it a sign? Where is this baby’s mother? Is it worth sacrificing more despair to write home and report their findings?

Tom buries the man and they decide to raise the baby – Lucy – as their own.

That is, until Tom cannot bear the lie anymore.

The Light Between Oceans is a beautiful story about mothering, risk, and the weight of lies. It’s about forgiveness and sacrifice, and the romantic mission of lighthouse keeping makes for a whimsical backdrop. Read it. You’ll be glad you did.

Buy The Light Between Oceans here.

Book Review: Riding Lessons by Sara Gruen

You may not recognize the name Sara Gruen, but you probably recognize Water for Elephants – the beautiful novel, the romantic film. Riding Lessons was her first novel and I picked it up in a discount bin not long ago only because I’m always curious about first novels.

Riding lessonsThe story centers around the emotional breakdown of Annemarie Zimmer. We step into her world just as her father is diagnosed with ALS, her husband leaves her for another woman, and her fifteen-year-old daughter hates her guts. It’s not pleasant, but life requires her attention, so Annemarie packs up and heads home to New Hampshire, to the horse stable where she grew up and trained to be an Olympic rider, to help care for her dying father and figure out what comes next.

As one could imagine, her world is in disrepair. She never became that Olympic rider because an accident prevented her from competing. Her beloved horse, Harry, died and it broke her parents’ hearts to see her quit the equestrian world altogether. Coming back to New Hampshire, Annemarie thought she could slip ever so easily back into that lifestyle without making waves. Unfortunately, her efforts to manage the farm and care for her father, and repair the relationship with her daughter, are made more challenging when a crippled horse – who looks just like Harry – trots into her life.

I’ll say now that I didn’t enjoy Riding Lessons as much as I enjoyed Water for Elephants, but only because it didn’t have the same magic and whimsy (who doesn’t love a story about running away with the circus?). Still, Gruen’s writing was pleasant and fluid. It was a quick read and a redeeming story that deals with varying degrees of loss and the long road one must travel to find a new normal.

Buy Riding Lessons here.

Book Review: And the Mountains Echoed

There are a handful of writers who have a place in my default folder of “People Whose Stuff I’ll Always Read.” Khaled Hosseini is one of them. When I read The Kite Runner, sometime in 2005 or 2006, my first thought was that the book should be required reading for all high school seniors. (The subsequent film in 2007 was equally gripping.) Then came A Thousand Splendid Suns and it had the same jarring effect. Hosseini’s stories are the closest I’ve ever gotten to the Afghan people and twice I’d been left wanting to know more, to meet the characters, to better understand them.

I just finished And the Mountains Echoed and I’m there all over again.

And the Mountains EchoedThe novel is like a woven set of short stories. We hear from five main characters who are all interconnected, and we are privy to their point of view depending on what part of the story we’re in. Starting in the fall of 1952, Abdullah, 10, and his sister Pari, 3, embark on a two-day journey with their father and neither child knows where they’re headed. As it turns out, Pari is being given away to Nila, a woman in Kabul who cannot bear children, a most difficult decision from which Abdullah never recovers and his father never speaks of it. Old enough to know what has happened, he spends the rest of his life missing his sister. He and his wife name their daughter Pari in her honor.

Then there’s Nabi, Abdullah’s uncle and the one who arranged the adoption. He works for a wealthy but private Afghan man whose petty wife all but asks for some bargain to be made. Nabi is the one who hands Pari over Nila and suffers the guilt of bearing such a secret throughout his life. Nila takes the child and heads to Paris, leaving behind her husband and his caregiver.

Dr. Markos, a Greek physician who lives in Kabul, becomes Nabi’s confessor. In a deathbed letter, Nabi tells Dr. Markos where to find Pari (living in France with her Afghan-Parisian mother) and also where to find Abdullah, now living in America. Dr. Markos has his own family crises, but connecting a long-lost brother and sister becomes a priority.

And finally, there’s the other Pari, the daughter who knows she was named after someone special. She’s an artistic American-born Muslim caught between familial duty and the desire for freedom. Her father, Abdullah, is aging and the weight of his care falls solely on her shoulders.

The narrative is elegant and compassionate. Despite knowing so little about life in the Middle East, these characters come alive and become people who I love. One doesn’t have to know the terrain of Afghanistan or understand the traditions of Islam to connect with people who are hurting. Yet again, Hosseini created a story that we all should read, if only to realize that we’re all the same inside. If I were rating these book reviews, this one would get five out of five stars.

Buy And the Mountains Echoed here. 

Book Review: Faithful Place by Tana French

Faithful PlaceWhen I read In the Woods, I didn’t know it was part of a series about Dublin murder cases, but alas, it is. In Faithful Place, Frank Mackey is our grouchy protagonist who went into police work after running away from his ghetto neighborhood at nineteen years old. He intended to run away to England with his girlfriend, Rosie, but when she didn’t show up on the get-away day, he assumed she lost her nerve.

Her body is discovered years later in an adjacent townhouse and Frank is determined to find out what happened to his first love.

A few things I loved: the crazy family dynamic, the gruffness of Frank’s discontent, the poetic way Tana French describes each scene and character…

The thing I didn’t like: The lack of suspense. Just as soon as the investigation got underway I knew who killed Rosie. It poured out of the pages with such clarity that I was sure a twist or turn would yank away my suspicions. But no. The person who I thought did it actually did it, so when the confession came, I wasn’t blown away. (That wasn’t the case for In the Woods, by the way. That one had me on edge.)

Don’t get me wrong – Tana French is a beautiful writer. Case in point, this first paragraph of Chapter 4:

The rain had slackened off to a faint damp haze, but the clouds were getting denser and darker; there was more on the way. Ma was pressed up against the front-room window, sending out curiosity rays that practically burned my eyebrows off. When she saw me looking in her direction, she whipped up a J-cloth and started furiously cleaning the glass.

French writes with careful cadence, the sort of rhythm that makes each sentence easy to read. I don’t know a thing about living in Dublin but French makes me think I do. Everything is so well described that almost nothing is left to the imagination. Not everyone loves that sort of writing, but I do. I want to submerge myself in a setting so that I actually live there for the duration of the book.

Perhaps it was her attention to detail that made the criminal so obvious. The character jumped off the page immediately, so much that I even thought, “Surely it’s not this person. That would be too obvious.”

In the Woods was a better book, but French’s writing is impeccable all around.

Buy Faithful Place here.

Book Review: The Goldfinch

At nearly 800 pages, The Goldfinch was a commitment, but it was one I was ready to make because I’d waited a year for this book to come out in paperback. During that time, it sat comfortably on the New York TImes Bestseller List, won a Pulitzer Prize, and acquired movie rights – and rightfully so.

The GoldfinchThe Goldfinch begins with Theodore Decker introducing himself to us – his anonymous reader – as an adult in Amsterdam. He’s ill with some sort of fever and tells us that his life is severed into two parts: before his mother’s death, and after. Then we jump back in time at his re-telling to learn what happened.

Theo was thirteen, a single child to his single mother in New York City, and had just been caught smoking a cigarette at school with a bad influence of a friend. On the way to a parent-principal conference, Theo and his mother stop at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to kill a little time. His mother shows him her favorite painting – The Goldfinch, a 1694 oil on panel a little bigger than a piece of paper. Just as Theo’s eyes leave the painting and gaze upon a spunky redhead at the museum with what looks like her grandfather, an explosion rocks the wing, destroying several works of art, killing a handful of people, including Theo’s mother.

In the rubble, disoriented and in shock, Theo finds the older man he saw with the redhead. The dying man says a myriad if disjointed things, then gives Theo an old ring and tells him where to take it. In the confusion of it all, Theo also takes The Goldfinch and leaves the museum through a back door.

All of this happens within the first fifty pages.

The journey Theo takes is a long, winding one filled with guilt, drugs, travel, and unquenched desire – all with The Goldfinch in tow. Welty (the old man) and Pippa (the redhead) inadvertently set him on a path to Hobie (a restoration expert), while the loss of his primary parent sends him first to a wealthy family in the city and then to Las Vegas to live indefinitely with his addiction intrenched father and his sketchy girlfriend. There he meets Boris, a Russian transient who becomes one of the greatest influences of his life – and the reason Theo winds up in Amsterdam.

Always at Theo’s heels is the knowledge that he has stolen a priceless piece of art and the fear that he will one day be caught.

Even though this story rocks my socks off, it isn’t without a few slow parts and heavy-handed description that could’ve been whittled. The end is particularly laden with lecture. Tartt’s few bits of lengthy drivel are probably the parts that warranted mixed reviews from some prominent literary critics, but they didn’t deter my own enjoyment. It was an engaging story, so sad at times, but thrilling at others.

At its core, The Goldfinch is a testimony to how art speaks directly to its viewer – how one interpretation is just as valid and moving and specific as the next. Art allows us to “speak to each other across time,” as Theo says, connecting us in cosmic, desperate ways.

“For if disaster and oblivion have followed this painting down through time — so too has love.”

For that, if no other reason, it’s beautiful. It has a firm place in my top ten favorites of all time.

Buy The Goldfinch here.

Book Review: The Heights

The HeightsThe Heights caught my attention primarily for its cover. One cannot underestimate the power of a beautiful book cover! Other than author familiarity, the cover (including the spine) is the thing that sparks curiosity about the content.

Oh, look! Something beautiful! I wonder what’s inside…

On the cover were the second and third things that caught my interest – the short teaser “A witty and honest take on marital claustrophobia” and a tiny blurb underneath the writer’s name, “author of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.” Then I learned that Peter Hedges wrote the screenplays for About a Boy and Dan in Real Life, and then I was sold.

The Heights is about Kate and Tim, a happy and settled couple living in a tiny apartment in one of the most desirable neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Tim is a history teacher at a private high school and Kate stays home with their two young boys. Unable to make all the ends meet, Kate lands a high-paying job that enables she and Tim to swap roles. It sounds like this swap spurs conflict, but it doesn’t. They are a team, so no matter who earns the money and who stays with the kids, contentment and security is the only concern.

It’s Anna who causes the upheaval. Anna, with her perfect skin and fat wallet and dynamic new apartment in the neighborhood. She seems desirable in every way, and though everyone knows there’s something off about her, Kate and Tim don’t see it until they are too intertwined in Anna’s magnetic world.

What follows is a test for Kate and Tim’s marriage, the entrance of a wealthy old flame, and the temptation to dip a toe in the life of extravagance.

The Heights is a short read, and though the plot seems straight out of a dime store novel, I assure you the narrative is smart. Like Dan in Real Life, you have complex characters who don’t know what to do with their own desires. There’s an ever-present fear in both Kate and Tim, a longing curiosity that asks, “What if this is all there is? And if so, is it enough?”

By the end of the book, they get their answer.

Buy The Hedges here. 

Book Review: The Signature of All Things

I acquired this book in November 2013, so to read it so long after its release feels unsupportive of Liz Gilbert and lazy on my part. She’s an inspiring person, and especially since I met her the night I got the book, I should’ve given it better attention from the start.

But (this is a valid but), I was still in graduate school and wasn’t reading for pleasure at all. All of 2014 was about reading for school and writing my own novel, so I purposely didn’t read any fiction. When grad school ended in December 2014, I picked up the first book that I’d been anticipating to read for a couple of years, Ken Follett’s Edge of Eternity. I saved it for a post-graduation Christmas treat.

Do you ever save books for a special time? Because you know the book is going to be well above par, emotionally exhaustive, or – simply – you want to give it your full attention?

That’s how I felt about The Signature of All Things. I couldn’t just casually pick it up. I had to pick it up with some level of intention. I’m taking the same care with Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed. I have it, but the right time to read it hasn’t yet come along.

The Signature of All ThingsThe Signature of All Things spans the entire life of Alma Whitaker, the unattractive mannish daughter of a wealthy Philadelphia businessman who grew his fortune in the botanical market. We start in the late 1700’s by learning how Henry Whitaker birthed that fortune by swindling and storming about the world with a keen mind for import and export. The history of Henry Whitaker is primarily important because Alma is so much like her father, and that’s important because Alma is unlike anyone most of us know.

She is brilliant from birth and follows in the steps of her father by studying botany. It’s an unusual career for a woman of the 1800’s, but few questioned her passions because everyone knew she had the mind for it. She wasn’t lovable in the romantic way so no one expected her to take a husband and bear litters of children.

So she devotes her entire life to botany, specifically the study of mosses.

Let me stop here and say that SOAT is not as dull as it sounds. Plants? Moss? An entire life devoted to plants and moss? In the 1800s?

Yeah, so it’s not the most thrilling topic, BUT! It isn’t without event and emotion. We follow Alma throughout every messy stage of her life and awkwardness abounds in nearly every situation – mostly because Alma cannot figure out the intentions of others. Why is her adopted sister so vacant? Conversely, why is the neighbor girl so blissfully boisterous at every turn? Does her father actually love her, and better still, does her mother? Why is the Dutch nursemaid so harsh? And painfully, will she ever, EVER know the touch of a man?

She is so plant-oriented that it isn’t until the fourth quarter of her life that she sees people for the rich role they played in her story. Additionally, it isn’t until the fourth quarter that all thing converge – the Earth, the past and present, humanity, and struggle, and her place in all of it. Furthermore, where is God?

I’m not trying to be vague, but I feel that if I get too descriptive I won’t be able to stop. The narrative is absolutely beautiful. Beauty-full. I mean, GOOD GRACIOUS she is such a good writer! I’m not even envious because Liz Gilbert and I are different planes and creative jealousy is unbecoming anyway. Her level of research must have been exhaustive because historical events and the timing of discovery merge seamlessly. I fully believe that Alma Whitaker existed. It would break my heart to learn she didn’t.

Not everyone has loved this book and for understandable reasons. For all the lovely words and beautiful places Gilbert takes us to, we are talking moss, aren’t we? There’s a lot of physical descriptions to muddle through, and though some bits were more lengthy than others (I’m talking about you, Tahiti), it didn’t feel overly tedious. One could say there were slow parts, but the only section that felt like it could be trimmed was Alma’s prolonged year in Tahiti, and even then, I wasn’t bothered entirely by it. I knew we were nearing the end of the story and things would wrap up soon.

In short, I loved the story. I love its depiction of a nineteenth century female scientist who did not settle but instead immersed herself in the passion that grabbed her. I loved her excursions and her hypotheses and how she never fully gave up on herself. Alma shows us that even into the last stage of life, we still have potential. We still have something to give and we definitely still have something to learn.

To be reminded of those things, it was worth the long journey.

Buy The Signature of All Things here. 

Book Review: The Night Circus

the night circusI didn’t know that a book could be completely vague and painfully detailed at the same time, but such is the case with The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. The hook is just vague enough – The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Why wouldn’t you want to read this? With its spectacular cover design and chimera, it feels like magic in your hands.

And it is, sort of.

Celia and Marco are bound in childhood to be opponents and the circus is their arena.  Set in Victorian time, these two are groomed for a duel they know little about. Their handlers are non-specific with information or they simply ignore the opponents’ questions. Celia and Marco don’t officially meet until adulthood, and even then, they don’t know they are to be one another’s opponent until they’ve already started having feelings for each other.

Cue Romeo and Juliet. The lovers cannot be together because they just can’t.

Does this talk of dueling seem vague? It’s meant to be, because throughout the entire book I kept asking, “Why must it be this way? Are the instructors so self-absorbed that they must train magicians to duel each other, just to prove who’s better? Is it all about ego?”

Apparently, yes.

Competition aside, Morgenstern creates a spectacular scene with her fantasy circus. Going into the book I expected it to be all illusion, hints and whiffs of magic but knowing it was all a trick. This isn’t the case with The Night Circus, for it is indeed other worldly. It is a complete fantasy, with its manipulation of time and space, its physical distortions, and the way in which one person controls everything.

I feel it’s important for you to know this in case reading fantasy fiction isn’t your thing. It’s not really my thing, so I spent much of the book saying, “That couldn’t happen” or “That’s not real.” Of course it’s not real. It’s fantasy.

If you can suspend your disbelief and recreate Morgenstern’s circus in your head, then the narrative is a delight. She created the kind of show we all wanted to see when we were kids. It’s rumored that The Night Circus will be a movie, and if that’s true, I’ll definitely see it because this is the sort of story that requires a visual. There is no big top, no lion tamers, no clowns. Instead there are a menagerie of black-and-white-striped tents that show up in the middle of the night and they’re all begging you to take a peek inside… and believe.

Buy The Night Circus here. 

Book Review: The Husband’s Secret

Holy moly. I read The Husband’s Secret in three days. It would’ve been one day had I no children or a coonhound who wants to play RIGHT NOW IMMEDIATELY all the time.

the husband's secretI’ve not read any of Liane Moriarty’s work before, but now I’m turned on to her. The narrative flits back and forth between three main characters, and once you get used to it you won’t have whiplash. Her writing is crisp and fluid. As a bonus, the story is set in Australia.

First, there is Cecilia. Her husband, John-Paul, wrote a letter to her many years ago, just after their first child was born. The letter was lost, or so John-Paul thought, but it resurfaced in Cecilia’s hands all of a sudden. It takes her about 100 pages to finally open and read it. Shock ensues.

Then there’s Tess. Her husband, Will, and cousin, Felicity, who is more like a sister than cousin, announce that they are in love. Life changes immediately. More shock.

Finally, there’s Rachel. She lives in a world of hurt every day because her teenage daughter was murdered twenty-some years ago. Making matters worse, the man she believes to be responsible for Janie’s death is a the P.E. teacher at the school where she works. Every day is a black cloud. Plus, her only son is moving to New York with his wife and son, Rachel’s only grandchild.

Life for these three women is chaos with crazy in the middle. They are all hanging on by a thin, fragile thread, so you can imagine how intense it gets when their three lives collide.

Buy The Husband’s Secret here.

Book Review: A Good Hard Look

Having only read her short story, A Good Man is Hard to Find, the one thing I really knew about Flannery O’Connor is that she died young. Strike that. I also knew she was Southern, but I didn’t know until recently that she was born in Savannah.

When I saw A Good Hard Look on the used books shelf at a local shop, I was instantly curious. It’s a novel of Flannery O’Connor, not a novel by her. The author, Ann Napolitano, created a possible world of Flannery’s last year in Milledgeville, Georgia, her hometown and the place she retreated to after being diagnosed with Lupus. She had already written Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away. In A Good Hard Look there is talk of her writing, but whether it’s a third novel or a collection of short stories, it’s not entirely clear.

A_Good_Hard_Look-large_coverA Good Hard Look begins with the squawking of peacocks. They were so loud that all of Milledgeville heard them in the night. The birds kept people awake, put them on edge, and gave them pause, wondering why in the world someone would find the animals soothing. But Flannery did, and not only did she have a large collection of peacocks, she also had a menagerie of other fowl – ducks, geese, chickens, whatever. They roamed the farm outside town where she lived with her mother. Flannery wrote and tended to her birds, waiting to die.

The fiction bits are relational – friendships, romantic relationships, and parenting woes that are all made complicated by time. Flannery is dying and Cookie Himmel (her childhood nemesis) is newly married. The problem is that her New Yorker husband can’t understand why he and Flannery can’t be friends. There’s a housewife/seamstress whose life is jolted by a passionate affair with a teenage boy while her daughter searches for something that gives her life an ounce of meaning. There is an overbearing religious mother, a hard-nosed cop, and a baby. And as always, there are the peacocks. How they’re all connected requires reading the book.

Napolitano became infatuated with Flannery while in college. She familiarized herself with the writer’s voice and was inspired to immerse herself in the literary world because of it. Like Flannery, Napolitano was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease and it left her in a bout of depression. When her wellness returned, she committed herself to A Good Hard Look, a love letter to Flannery that took her six years to write. It is a provocative story that engages the reader and a poetic tribute to the Southern Gothic writer who was robbed of her years.

Lent Reading 2015

A few years ago I started observing Lent, but instead of giving up meat or coffee or carrots (which Jackson said he was giving up for Lent), I decided instead to take these forty days and immerse my brain in study. I pick a subject (or a subject picks me) and I read a selection of books that will stretch or test my faith.

This season of Lent will be about prayer. I’m starting with a super short book by Anne Lamott.

Help Thanks Wow

In truth, I’m terrible at prayer. I was that girl in the youth group who really tried, mainly because I knew I was supposed to pray so I could say YES when someone asked, “Are you doing your Quiet Time?” (I’m glad no one asks me that anymore.) I’d have bouts of regular prayer in adulthood, times here and there when I’d study something or pray for a very specific thing (like our adoptions), but nothing stuck. I’d get complacent and robotic. So I’d stop. I told myself that if it didn’t feel real, I shouldn’t do it. To be brutally honest, for many early years I was that person who used to say “I’ll pray for you” and never did, not because I didn’t care but because I didn’t understand how to make it a priority in a meaningful way.

Several years ago I stopped saying “I’ll pray for you” because I didn’t want to be disingenuous. I actually do pray for people, but it’s not a formal thing. It’s in the moment, at the second it occurs to me, and it’s usually very brief.

Lord, please make it easy for her today. Amen.

God, this feels so unfair. Make it not hurt so badly. Amen.

Heavenly Father, give him a moment to think. Calm him down. Amen.

Thank you for all of this, Lord. Truly. Amen.

Participating in responsive prayer has been helpful to me in recent years, but I know I’m still missing out on something. For that reason, I’m going to read about contemplative prayer during Lent, a practice I know little about but wonder if it will benefit my scatterbrained mind. After Anne Lamott will be a book by Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, who wrote extensively on contemplative prayer. I’ve also ordered Flannery O’Connor’s prayer journal, a book I didn’t even know existed.