May 7, 2018

April Book Reviews




Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë ★★★★★  (audiobook)

After reading Jane Eyre last year, written by Anne's older, more well-known sister, Charlotte, I knew I would have to pick up another Brontë book soon. Wuthering Heights seems too dreary, so I settled for this lesser known novel that is loosely autobiographical. Anne left home at age nineteen to work as a governess before she made her breakout as an author. This novel, written in 1847, chronicles some of her experiences as a governess (which, side note, is a recurrent profession in the Brontë books). Her protagonist, Agnes, is the daughter of minister who made unfortunately disastrous financial decisions that propelled Agnes to want to help carry the financial burdens of the family while he slipped into a deep depression over his guilt. She starts her career with a most unfortunate family of spoiled, bratty young kids whose overindulging parents blame Agnes for their own lack of discipline over their unruly brood of the young, disrespectful, mischievous rugrats. Later, she is governess to two egotistical, vain, snooty teen sisters who further  reveal to Agnes the ugly side of the wealthy class. Throughout all these experiences, many of which would have caused me to call it quits, she stands morally stable, fixing her eyes on God and her desire to obey Him even when it is hard. She befriends an impoverished, blind woman in the nearby  countryside as well as a compassionate clergyman that makes her heart skip a beat. Agnes is a shy, more pensive and reluctant heroine than most female protagonists I have read. At first, she almost seems a bit prudish and self-righteous as a pastor's kid, making somewhat judgmental observations about the corrupt morals of the wealthy families she works for. But as the story progressed, I was impressed by her strong moral compass as well as her forgiveness when she was deeply wronged, her trust in God when she feels she has to give up her chance at being loved by a man, her compassion for those in need, and her willingness to try to understand even if she doesn't agree with the opinions of the wealthy. Her quiet strength, resilience, and Christian character all shined through the novel. I would still call it a somewhat dreary book, which is no surprise for any Brontë novel, but there's also a lot of beautiful reflections from Agnes, a great example in Agnes' mom of a faithful and loving wife and mother (who gave up her own wealth and was denied any more contact with her prestigious family when she married her husband), and just an overall well-crafted story. I will definitely be reading more Brontë  soon!

Memorable quote: “One bright day in the last week of February, I was walking in the park, enjoying the threefold luxury of solitude, a book, and pleasant weather...”


Mr. Rochester by Sarah Shoemaker ★★★★★  (audiobook)
I am often leery of reading re-imaginings or fan fiction of classics, so I was slightly nervous about reading this retelling of one of my favorite novels from the perspective of its brooding, mysterious Mr. Edward Fairfax Rochester himself. But after winning my first ever giveaway through Goodreads, I received a free copy and bumped it up on my to-read list, though I ended up choosing the audiobook version because the British male accent of the narrator was perfect for the tale. Edward Fairfax Rochester is indeed a complex character in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, with his secrets and seemingly sordid past. Sarah Shoemaker's Mr. Rochester is just as complex, but the reader gets a first row seat in traveling through his childhood into adulthood when he falls for Jane. Deception, neglect, a yearning for love and friendship, naïve trust and loyalty, and bitter resentment are the hand that he is dealt in his early life, reading much like a Charles Dickens tale of woe. From a lonely and motherless boy roaming the halls of Thornfield Hall, to being sent away to an unconventional boarding school by an absent father,  gaining work experience at a mill in the English countryside, and finally to traveling to Jamaica where he meets the notorious B.A.M.  (Bertha Antoinetta Mason, that is) and his world starts unraveling. This all foreshadows why he is the dark, sarcastic, mysterious character he is when Jane meets him. Shoemaker's vibrant imagination and eloquent writing matches beautifully alongside the masterpiece of Jane Eyre. Her version of Mr. Rochester made sense in my mind and helped explain him in a way that made me respect him more than I had in Jane Eyre, where it took until the last few pages for me to soften up to him because he just seemed so callous, bitter, and pompous until that point! 


Out to Canaan (Mitford Years #4) by Jan Karon ★★★★★  (audiobook)
The Mitford books are well-known among the Christian female readers who are twice my age, but that has not stopped me from these cozy, slow-paced, character-driven novels about Father Tim, an Episcopalian priest, and the other residents of the hill-ensconced, idyllic town of Mitford. In this fourth installment, Father Tim is planning his retirement and getting subtle backlash from his loving parishioners, a new mayoral candidate with a suspicious background does everything he can to sway the vote, a sudden surge in real estate interest from a mysterious company, and a few surprising new relationships. Not only are the happenings in Mitford entertaining and endearing (I laughed out loud plenty of times), there are also some very wise, thoughtful personal reflections as well as dialogue that points to redemption for those who think they are too far gone, hope for almost hopeless situations, and a beautiful example of hospitality and sacrificial love shown through Father Tim and his wife. These novels are wonderful novels to read when I want a somewhat predictable story without any questionable material. It's great having an author you can trust is not going to use gratuitous sensual scenes or language to try to add spunk or drama to her story, but rather, one who is content in her style and carries it through all the novels. This was a charming and life-giving read. It brought up good things to ponder, as the other novels have as well, and made me long for more opportunities to show love and hospitality in our future home -- but also realizing there are plenty of opportunities now in our small apartment as well.


A Common Life: The Wedding Story (Mitford Years #6) by Jan Karon★★
After reading (and adoring) Out To Canaan earlier in the month, I decided to skip over the fifth novel and read the sixth novel of the series, which is actually a flashback to the Father Tim and Cynthia's wedding (which occurred earlier in the series). From the proposal to the honeymoon, the reader peeks into not only the Bride and Groom's perspective of the days leading to their Big Day, but also their friends and fellow townspeople, many of whom are beloved characters from earlier books. It was an overall good read but felt a lot more choppy than the other books in the series since it jumped around from the perspectives from so many different characters, whereas the other books mostly stick to Father Tim's perspective. 


Braving Sorrow Together: The Transformative Power of Faith and Community When Life is Hard by Ashleigh Slater ★★★★
We all have some kind of hardship that either we ourselves or our loved ones are going through. This is a great resource to help plow through those painful, confusing, sometimes heartbreaking seasons within supportive community rather than in isolation. In my own experience, it never helps to withdraw or avoid the pain in my life, and yet it is a recurrent defense mechanism I gravitate towards. But in the past years, I have personally seen the redemptive healing and joy that comes out of vulnerability through the hard stuff, trusting friends and church community to come alongside me during seasons of loneliness, anxiety, and bitterness. The encouragement and Truth-filled words they spoke over my life were a soothing balm when my own mind was filled with negativity, despair, sorrow, and a threaten sense of self and identity. And that is what this small but powerful book is all about. Slater divided the chapters into different areas where we can experience loss and sorrow, titling the chapters Control, Relationships, Home, Jobs, Dreams, Health, and Life. Within each chapter, she shared personal accounts of her own loss and sorrow, such as her husband's season of job loss, her own battle with crippling anxiety, the heartbreak of miscarriage, and a loss of her dream career in exchange for a homeschooling, stay-at-home-mom. Her humility, vulnerability, honesty, and wisdom shine through this book, which makes it relatable. She offers practical steps in bringing community into each of these areas of loss rather than trying to carry the burdens alone. I found it a very useful resource that I know I will return to, either for my own future seasons of loss, whatever they may look like, or to be learn to be a more supportive and intentional shoulder to lean on whenever people in my life are experiencing loss.

Memorable quote: "We have to purposefully determine where to fix our focus -- either our changing circumstances or our unchanging God"

This book reminded me of: What Grieving People Wish You Knew About What Really Helps by Nancy Guthrie

Disclaimer: I received this book for free from Moody Publishers Blogger Review Program in exchange for an honest review, which I have provided here.


Calm My Anxious Heart by Linda Dillow ★★★★
I first read this book about eight years ago and re-read it again,  each chapter slowly over the past few months to let the truths sink in. Dillow uses Scripture, her own experiences as a missionary in Europe, as well as stories of different women trusting God amidst incredibly difficult situations in Communist Romania, Poland, and China (I believe in the 1980s?) to show how we can have calm hearts that are content and trusting in God through whatever comes our way. She starts out the book  exploring how we can grow in contentment in our circumstances, in our own body, in our roles, and in our relationships. She then moved onto how to avoid a "faulty focus" of worry and instead, growing in faith. She ends with the trusting God with the what ifs, the if onlys, and the whys. The twelve-week  study guide at the back of the book was very helpful in processing and cementing the various themes and challenges in the book to grab hold in my heart and mind. It's an older book but still so relevant, practical, and filled with truth from Scripture that encourages me to trust God no matter what the circumstances arise. The only thing I think could have improved the book was mentioning that sometimes people struggling with anxiety can benefit not only from prayer, community, journaling, working through different issues like contentment and faith (all wonderful things!!!), but also the wisdom and experience of a counselor and/or psychiatrist to help along the way. There was not a clear distinction, or even mention, for that matter, of debilitating anxiety disorder as opposed to occasional situational anxiousness or worry, so it could come off as discouraging for women who feel like they are lacking faith or not a "good" Christian if they struggle. I believe that sometimes even when there is a will to work through anxiety, there is a brain activity and psychosomatic symptoms that can sometimes persist and could benefit from collaborating with professionals who are trained in anxiety disorders.

Memorable quote: “Faith raises us above our circumstances. Faith enables us to be content even when life doesn’t make sense. Faith is the bulwark that keeps us strong even when we’re assailed by agonizing thoughts about what might happen or by what has happened . . . Faith is not something to be reasoned from afar, but something we throw ourselves into — heart, mind, and soul . . . God does not demand that you and I have blind faith, but abandoned faith, a faith that trusts Him fully . . . Confidence in God’s character enables us to throw ourselves with complete abandon into His care."


Finding Selah: The simple Practice of Peace When You Need it Most by Kristen Kill ★★★★
Selah is a musical term for a pause between notes of the song or stanzas in the poetic Psalms. But it is so much more than just a break. In our lives selah can mean a pause from our busyness and time to reflect and enjoy God's presence amidst our busy lives. Kristen opens up about a chaotic season in her life when she lived in Manhattan with her husband and four kids and also endured through multiple miscarriages. Along the heartbreak and fast-paced lifestyle, she was desperate for rest. Learning about selah and sabbath were a stream of calm water for her, leading her on a journey to carve out space to be still and find peace and rest. She has a poetic writing style that is slightly reminiscent of Ann Voskamp and her honesty is refreshing and encouraging for those, like myself, who want to invite more selah into our lives.  I would have liked more practical application of how others can "find selah" in their own circumstances. Granted, it is individual experience for everyone, but I would have liked to have more ideas of ways to  carve out this time in my own life. In recent years, I have been blessed by exploring  selah and it has looked like painting, going for walks, intentionally being still and meditating on Scripture, journaling, and praying. This is a theme that has become vital in my life since I tend to get anxious and overwhelmed when I am stretched too thin and do not have pockets of quiet and rest built into my week, so I was hoping for a bit more practical help and a deeper study in the Biblical term of selah.  I was expecting more of a theological exposition and practical guide rather than a memoir, which is fine overall because it was a wonderful and encouraging read, but I think my expectation for the book affected how much I ending up liking it. 

Memorable quote: "I'd had an interlude. A period of time, however brief, set apart from the natural pace, like in a piece of music, another kind of tune played in between verses or bars."

This book reminded me of: One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp

Disclaimer: I received this book for free from Booklook Bloggers in exchange for an honest review, which I have provided here.



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What have YOU read recently? Any books you recommend?

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Elle Alice