I discovered Fredrik Backman last year and enjoyed his writing, so a friend lent me another of his novels, My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry. I had not read anymore Backman because it seemed like his novels were all the same story told with different characters. But I’m so glad I read more by him; I loved this book. While he does deal with some similar themes again, this novel handles them in a very unique and creative way. Elsa is a different kind of seven-year-old whose best friend is her grandmother. Every night, they go to the Land-of-Almost-Awake where Granny tells Elsa stories about all the kingdoms and inhabitants there. Right before Granny dies, she gives Elsa a quest – to deliver her apology letters. As Elsa tries to find and deliver the letters, she begins to discover that the Land-of-Almost-Awake was not purely from Granny’s imagination – or solely for Elsa – but is a reflection of the real world and the lives of others. As Elsa begins to understand its origins, she also begins to understand the people around her better. This is such a wonderful, sweet tale about the importance of looking past the surface of others and seeing the complexity and vulnerability underneath. I also love Backman’s celebration of storytelling and imagination, and the new zany cast of characters. This book was so great and I look forward to reading more by Backman.
The Eternity Code is book 3 in the Artemis Fowl series by Eoin Colfer. I read the first two books a few years ago, and decided to give it another try. Artemis Fowl is a boy genius and criminal mastermind, following the generations of Fowls before him. Artemis discovers the existence of a hidden technologically-advanced world of fairies below ground. Bent on gaining the fairies’ gold and technology, he becomes pitted against Holly Short, the top fairy cop protecting her world against the invasion of humans. The series follows their various encounters as Fowl launches scheme after scheme. Colfer has created such an interesting and unique world full of battles, mafia, magic, and space-age technology. Given that it’s a children’s series, the characters can be a bit cartoonish, but over the books there’s some significant character development. I have four of the eight books in the series and they’re fun to pick up here and there for a break from weightier novels. Kids who enjoy action, fantasy, and sci-fi will appreciate this clever blend of genres.
Respectable Sins: Confronting the Sins We Tolerate by Jerry Bridges is an excellent book I hope every Christian will read. In our ever-changing national landscape of race wars and gender spectrums, it’s easy for Christians to hone in on these big issues outside of themselves and ignore the less noticeable sin within, sins that we begin to accept. But Bridges helps us realize that while there are varying degrees of sin, sin is still sin, abominable to our holy God, and, as His people, we must be about the business of seeking it out within ourselves and killing it. In this incredibly convicting book, Bridges lays out the biblical evidence of the danger of our sin, that God’s people are called to be holy as He is holy, and how He has given us the Holy Spirit to help sanctify us. With this foundation, he then addresses many of the sins we tolerate such as ungodliness, anxiety, pride, anger, and judgmentalism. This book is so helpful in helping us analyze our own hearts and get down to the root of our actions towards God and others. Bridges also provides practical ways to fight these sins, providing Scripture references to help us believe truth such as when we’re tempted to doubt or judge others. It’s not a very long book and one to work through slowly as you ponder and pray over each sin discussed and how it appears in your own life. It’s a difficult book because it reveals so much of our hearts, but absolutely worth the read – several times – as we fight be look more like Jesus.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple was a lucky thrift store find I grabbed after hearing it mentioned on my favorite book podcast. But it languished on my shelves until my sister read it and told me how much she enjoyed it. I was hesitant about starting it because I knew the format was different than a traditional novel, and I wasn’t convinced it could work. The story is told through correspondence – emails, notes, letters, messages – as fifteen-year-old Bee tries to piece together what happened to her mother, Bernadette, when she suddenly disappears. As the story unfolds, we learn more about Bernadette’s background and what would drive her to disappear. In the end, it was an enjoyable book and Semple made the format work for her purpose. It took me a while to get interested because there are no likable characters at the beginning, but one engaging aspect of the novel is that there is some significant development. With a wry sense of humor, Semple explores themes of family (especially mother-daughter relationships), how our response to difficulties can affect our lives for better or worse, and the pressures to fulfill others’ expectations. It’s a fun, quick read, and apparently coming out as a movie next year.
With this novel, I’ve hit my goal of 52 books for 2017. Plenty of time left for many more!
Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier is told from the point of view of a young, unnamed woman that meets Maxim de Winter, a recently widowed, wealthy gentleman from the English countryside. After a whirlwind romance, the two are married, making our protagonist the second Mrs. de Winter, and settle at his family’s estate, Manderley. The narrator becomes obsessed with Rebecca, the former Mrs. de Winter, trying to piece together the kind of woman she was, while all the characters deal with the repercussions of Rebecca’s life. It’s very interesting how a character that is never alive during the novel dominates the story, affecting the relationships between characters and driving the plot along. Du Maurier writes in a way that propels the reader, with interesting characters, the narrator being especially complex as we see the inner workings of her mind. Before I read the novel, I saw it described as “suspense” and “chilling,” so I picked Rebecca for the end of October thinking it would be a bit of a supernatural thriller for Halloween. Sadly, it wasn’t; the novel is a suspenseful gothic novel lacking anything supernatural. My mistake equating suspense with thriller. Despite not being what I expected, or getting me ready for Halloween, it was a good story.
I was intrigued by the premise of A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles and the fact that it was wildly popular when released about a year ago. A friend of mine bought, read and loved it, so I finally borrowed the book to satisfy my curiosity. The novel begins in 1922 when Count Alexander Rostov is put under house arrest in Moscow’s Metropol Hotel following the social upheaval of the Bolshevik Revolution. I was very curious to know how such a limited and simple plot could be engaging and take up almost 500 pages. I was delighted to find that Towles’ writing is beautiful and masterful. Not only can he write about the most mundane things in the Count’s day in such an interesting way (One of my favorite passages is a whole chapter where the author describes the Count’s agony of trying to make the time pass while reading a very boring book – an experience we can all empathize with.), but he also is able to draw out large, overarching themes from the ordinary. The novel deals with the bitterness of loss – not only of liberty but of family, tradition, and purpose – while also considering what we gain in difficult situations that we would not have had otherwise. There is also a good bit of social and political commentary which taught me much about that time period in Russia. In addition, the Count along with his cast of hotel employees and guests are skillfully fleshed out and delightful to read about. It is a wonderful, beautiful book and I was glad I persevered through. It’s not action-driven, but if you appreciate great writing and charming characters, you’ll enjoy this.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood is well-known for being a banned book in schools because of the subject matter. I’ve always been interested in reading it, though it never showed up on any of my syllabi. So this year I read it for the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week. Atwood’s tale relates a not-too-distant future dystopia where a fundamentalist cult has taken over America’s government and set up the Republic of Gilead. Women have been stripped of all rights, including the right to have money, work, read, and write, based on manipulative and erroneous interpretations of the Bible. Instead, women are assigned roles in this new society, such as servant or handmaid, and then given to a man’s household. This story follows Offred, a handmaid, who is required to let her Commander attempt to impregnate her each month to combat the declining birthrate. In order just to survive this new world, Offred must maneuver Gilead’s strict restrictions of women as well as the uncomfortable relationships within her household among the servants, Commander, and Commander’s wife. But Offred also remembers what the old world was like – when she had her own name, was part of a family, held a job. As she clings to these memories while living within her new bizarre reality the story grows surreal at times, as if these two concurrent truths will exceed what her brain can comprehend.
Atwood explores the fine line between laws that protect people and laws that prohibit freedoms, as well as how man-made institutions can be used to oppress and dehumanize others. Gilead is a frightening and riveting world and a glimpse of the dangers that lie around and within us, such as racism and sexism, and how they can grow if we are not aware and intentional to combat them. This book does have some disturbing scenes but Atwood writes them with extreme intention and skill; they serve a purpose and are not gratuitous. What I found to be the most intriguing aspect of the book is that it shows the fallibility of man-made morality. I am so grateful that Christianity is not a set of rules that have men vying for dominion over each other and that restrict the liberties of some in order to give them to others. The guide of life set out in the Bible is from a holy and gracious God, not flawed and selfish man, and it is dangerous to try to turn His Word into laws of morality while discounting God Himself. His limits and restrictions are not in order to oppress and manipulate but to show us how to live life the way He intended us to, while valuing all mankind, who are made in His image. I am so thankful that the Gospel is true and that my faith is not devised by corrupt man but by a perfect God.
Tumble & Blue is the second book by Cassie Beasley that I picked up at the Mississippi Book Festival this year. To start, I love this beautiful, unique cover, but the story is wonderful too! Beasley’s books are both stories of magic realism – they take place in a very normal world the reader can recognize, but with elements of magic mixed in (like Harry Potter, especially Book 1). The title of this middle grade novel comes from the names of the two main characters who meet in a little town called Murky Branch on the edge of the Okefenokee swamp. Because of some awful ancestors, Tumble and Blue both have a big problem: they’re cursed. Tumble wants to be a hero but always seems to be the one that needs rescuing, and Blue can’t win – anything. But a golden alligator deep in the swamp can change their fates, if only they can find him. Their friendship and their individual family relationships are deep and complex, and Beasley brings the story to life in a very relatable setting. I really loved that she delves into how our choices make us who we are and how good can come from struggle and difficult situations, making us stronger and wiser. This is a wonderful book for children and I so hope Beasley writes another – soon!
Dark Matter by Blake Crouch is a sci-fi novel about lowly physics professor Jason Dessen who is kidnapped and wakes up in another world – one where he is a renowned and rich physicist but never married or had a family. The most interesting part of this novel is that it takes actual theories of quantum mechanics and runs wild; Blake speculates what life would be like if these theories could be proven and applied. The plot hinges on the idea of a multiverse – that an infinite number of universes exist for every possible outcome to every situation. Crouch gets a little more in depth with the theory, though steers clear of being academic and manages to explain it well for laymen like me. As Jason tries to get back to his world and his life, Crouch explores the idea of our choices in life and the road not taken. It’s a fast-paced, plot-driven story that I read through pretty quickly. Though I think the characters and writing are mediocre, it is an entertaining story and the unique premise alone is reason enough to read it.
Side note: You’ll see on the cover of this book the seal for Book of the Month Club. This is a subscription service where, for about $15 a month, you get a new hardback. Each month you choose from a selection of 4-5 books that are new releases that month. Being a member, you also have access to their past selections to add on for only $10 each. I found a trial deal and got The Heart’s Invisible Furies (an August selection), and bought from their backlist Dark Matter and The Ocean at the End of the Lane, two that had been on my wish list for a while. I’ve read the two from my wish list, but still haven’t gotten around to the new release; maybe after it’s been out a while and I hear more about it I’ll give it a try. I don’t read enough new releases that this would be worth it for me. (Also, I don’t like that they put their logo on the books.) But, if you buy new releases often and are open to not knowing a lot about a book before you read it, this is a really good deal.
I love The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J. R. R. Tolkien. I’ve read these books multiple times, but they are so good that rereads take none of the enjoyment of the story away. In fact, Tolkien’s skillful character and plot development provides layers upon layers of story to delve into with each reading. Tolkien’s world of Middle-earth, threatened by the Dark Lord and his Ring of Power and saved by the unlikely heroes of the age, is storytelling at its pinnacle. This trilogy is a celebration of goodness, loyalty, and friendship in the face of evil, darkness, and despair. There’s not much I can add to the mountain of commentary on The Lord of the Rings, so I will only say it’s wonderful and beautiful and magical, and if you’ve never read it you absolutely should.