July Book Reviews
I read thirteen books in July! What the heck?! I think it was largely due to Baby Elliot waking me up at night with his kicks and not being comfortable as my belly gets larger and larger these last weeks of pregnancy. Whatever the reason, I flew through some fantastic reads and am excited to share about them!
The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters by Balli Kaur Jaswal (audiobook) ★★★★☆
Three British-born Punjabi sisters, who could not be any more different from one another, reluctantly travel to India to scatter their late mother's ashes and fulfill her dying wish to visit sacred areas that she believes will bring them together and teach them about vital life lessons. I enjoyed a lot about this fast-paced novel. The three sisters each had their own difficulties they were dealing with, which made them flawed and real characters. They were sometimes frustrating in their decisions and bickering with one another, but the character development was believable, which is one of the things I gravitate towards in books. The pilgrimage to India was also fascinating since there were a lot of details about the food, culture, and various sights that are immensely different than what I am accustomed to seeing here in the U.S. I love books about traveling, so it was fun to travel from the comfort of my armchair. I would not call this a feel-good family drama, but it is hopeful, funny at times, and even in the difficult parts, it drew me in to want to know these characters better.
Rating: PG-13 (language)
Reminded me of: The family dynamics, especially the differences between generations (mothers and daughters specifically) reminded me Jhumpa Lahiri's novels about the Bengali culture (Unaccustomed Earth, Interpreter of Maladies, and The Namesake)
When Elephants Dance by Tess Uriza Holthe ★★★★★
Loosely based on real events during WWII in the Philippine Islands, this novel weaves three different perspectives (a young boy, a guerrilla leader, and a teenage girl) to dive into the horrors of Japanese brutality. This is a hard book to read. There are a lot of heartbreaking, tear-jerking details of the torture endured by the Philippines (and other Asian islands) at the hands of the Japanese regime during WWII that is often not discussed in literature. The reality of pure evil motives and actions was palpable in this novel, and I had to take breaks from it because of the heaviness. But paradoxically, there was a magical realism element to it as well, bringing a certain balance to the devastation. As a group of neighbors are hiding and slowly starving in the basement of a home, the elders in the community share personal stories that are mixed with folklore deeply embedded in the Filipino culture, recited in effort to bring hope and instruction during particular moments in the plot. These stories are sprinkled throughout the book, which gives brief reprieve from the gut-wrenching reality of what was going on around them. This was a very unique reading experience since it is rare when I pick up both magical realism and books with sensitive, hard-to-read material, but I am glad I did. It taught me more about the WWII experience of the small, mostly defenseless island of the Philippines and the writing itself was exquisite and lyrical.
Rating: PG-13 (violence, sexual assualt)
Reminded me of : The magical realism reminds me of Eowyn Ivey's books (To the Bright Edge of the World and Snow Child) because I was constantly thinking, how much of this story is real? The focus on the Pacific side of WWII reminded me of Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand and Evidence Not Seen by Darlene Deibler Rose)
Half a World Away by Cynthia Kadohata (audiobook) ★★★★☆
Eleven-year old Jaden was adopted from a Romanian orphanage at the age of eight. He is struggling with attachment to his parents and lashes out in attempt to self-protect. He is the kind of kid who is often labeled as "difficult" at school due to aggressive and often obsessive behaviors. Now, his parents have planned a trip with him to Kazakhstan to finalize the adoption of a new baby brother. Jaden is convinced they're wanting to adopt again because he was such a failure as a son and he already resents his future sibling. But the dramatically different culture of the impoverished Kazakhstan town and the heartbreaking conditions of the children in the orphanage they visit help to change something deep in Jaden's heart and mind. This is middle-grade fiction, written from Jaden's perspective. It is thoughtfully written and realistically portrays the lasting complexities of adoption, particularly for older children who remember being deserted by their biological parents. The author approached this topic sensitively but did not shy away from the raw, ugly realities of the arduous adoption process as well as the long road for adopted children to feel loved, safe, and accepted in their new families. The only thing I had against the book is that I felt it ended a bit too quickly. I would have liked to see certain things fleshed out a bit more with Jaden's relationship with with parents. But in the end, I felt like it was believable and an honest representation of some of the hardships surrounding adoption.
What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty (audiobook) ★★★★★
I have had this book on my TBR for at least a year and I finally got to it. The premise is intriguing: An Australian woman wakes up after losing consciousness during a fall at the gym. The last thing she remembers is being a carefree twenty-nine years old, pregnant, and head-over-heels with her husband. But apparently ten years have passed and she is months away from turning forty, has three children, her marriage is crumbling, and she is known to be a bit of a rich, bossy snob. What happened during the last ten years that could have changed Alice and her circumstances so much? And will she every regain her memory? This was absolutely engrossing. I could not stop listening to the audiobook; I just was so curious what would happen. It was fast-paced, mysterious, and thought-provoking (would I be surprised at who I've become after ten years if the same thing happened to me?). I also enjoyed the two sub-plots, one of which comes from the perspective of Alice's older sister who has been struggling with fertility for years and the other being their "adoptive" grandmother who is starting a new chapter in her life.
Rating: PG-13 (lots of language)
The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish to Freedom by Henri Nouwen ★★★★☆
Known as Nouwen's "secret journal" during one of the most emotionally difficult seasons of his life, he gave himself spiritual pep-talks through journal entries he called "spiritual imperatives". After repeated encouragement to publish these journal entries to help others as they endure their own trials, he allowed these inner thoughts, which he once deemed too raw and personal, to be shared publicly nearly a decade later. Now these writings, filled with hope, encouragement, insight, and honesty, can be a tool for others as they endure loneliness, loss, broken relationships, etc. Some of the entries were harder to relate to, but there were definitely plenty that were packed with solid truth and hope that I could resonate with. These entries are best read like a devotional, a few each day to soak in the depth of the words, rather than zipping through them quickly. It was good overall, but my favorite Nouwen book is still The Return of the Prodigal Son, which also includes lessons he learned from that long season of suffering, but written in relation to the parable of the Prodigal Son and the Rembrandt portrait of the same name.
Babette's Feast by Isak Dinesen (audiobook)★★★☆☆
A short story with a sweet plot, but not overly intriguing or memorable. Babette is a poor French cook with a mysterious past who gets hired to work for two sisters who are part of a conservative Christian group in Denmark. When circumstances change in her life, she decides to convince the pious women, who are used to the simplest of meals, to a feast that rivals the best French restaurants. They reluctantly agree and Babette goes to work to create a feast that the town will never forget.
The Gown: A Novel of the Royal Wedding by Jennifer Robson ★★★★☆
A fascinating historical novel about two of the embroiders who created Queen Elizabeth's wedding dress in 1947. Burdened by the after effects of WWII, ration cards, and a harsh winter, Ann (a British native) and Miriam (a French Holocaust survivor) strike up a friendship as they put their skills together to help create the iconic wedding dress (and veil) with its intricate and masterful details. The story is told from three perspectives, with each chapter alternating between Ann, Miriam, and Heather (a present-day Canadian who is researching the creators of the dress). Even though Ann and Miriam are fictional characters, it felt so realistic to hear about the post-WWII atmosphere, with the remaining grief and loss still lingering, which seemed thoroughly researched. This was fun to read since I enjoy the Netflix drama about Queen Elizabeth, The Crown, and kept imagining the actors from the show whenever there was mention of the royal family. This was a great book for audiobook since the narrator did a great job with the Canadian, British, and French accents of the main characters (which is impressive!).
Rating: PG (one scene with sexual assault, brief but may trigger some readers)
I saw this book while shelving returned books at our church library where I volunteer twice a month. It peeked my interest right away. I enjoyed reading the short synopses of both books I have read and those I have not yet read but have been curious about. The various authors of this Christian literary devotional give a quick snapshot of the book (author, publication date, and awards won or movies produced that were based on the book). They then provide a two-page devotional, which is a mixture of a concise summary of the book with a at least a paragraph or two of thought-provoking spiritual application. A Bible verse is mentioned for each devotional and two discussion questions are listed for further thought. There were a few books I added to my To-Be-Read list after reading about them (Silas Marner, Roots, and Robinson Crusoe). Most of the books included in this list are not Christian books, nor do they have obvious Christian themes, but the authors extrapolated insight and lessons that could be related to the Christian life. A few seemed a bit far-fetched, but overall, I enjoyed the application of Biblical truths in these books. Books include: Anne of Green Gables, Charlotte's Web, Count of Monte Cristo, Jane Eyre, Les Miserables, Little Women, Lord of the Rings, Moby Dick, The Poisonwood Bible, To Kill A Mockingbird, The Secret Garden, The Screwtape Letters, Tom Sawyer, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Winnie the Pooh, A Wrinkle in Time, Wuthering Heights, among others. The only thing I wasn't crazy about is that they included details in their plot summaries which I would count as spoilers, so if that would bother you, I might skip the particular devotionals that focus on a book you have yet to read and want to be surprised with the ending. Otherwise, it's a fun but also thought-provoking devotional for book lovers.
When Songs Are Forbidden: The True Story of a Children's Choir in Romania by Genovieva Sfatcu Beattie ★★★★☆
I had heard bits and pieces of the hardships of living in Romania during the Communism era under the dictatorship of President Ceausescu from my parents, pastors at the Romanian church I grew up in, and various other older Romanian people who endured all types of hardships. But reading this book opened up even more of the harsh realities, injustices, and atrocities that occurred. Our family was able to leave Romania in 1989, a few months before Ceausescu was assassinated, and we immigrated to America. After reading this book, I am even more grateful for the freedom we have here in America. This memoir/autobiography tells of Genovieva's upbringing and early adulthood as a devout Christian in Romania during the 1960s and 1970s. From her first day in school, she was ridiculed and even beaten and spat on by Communist teachers because her family was known to be Christians, which was a crime to the Communist regime, who worshipped their totalitarian president. She was denied entrance to universities even though her grades were stellar, and was also denied a work visa because of her Christian faith, so she could not be hired by anyone or else they would get in trouble for helping out a "dangerous" Christian. Her crime? Passing out Bibles, leading others to the Christian faith, and boldly refusing to worship communism. Eventually, she lived and worked in her church for many years as the janitor. In the 1973, a parent asked if she was willing to start a children's choir at their church. Composing Christian songs that were not approved by communist leaders (who changed wording and watered it down to secular music) was illegal, so this was risky, but she wholeheartedly went into this project, which encouraged not only the children (up to sixty children were in the choir) but also thousands in Romania. From those in their church, to people who listened to them sing live during their trips around Romania during concerts, as well as those who listened to their recordings (done in secret since this was also illegal). She wrote the songs by listening to foreign broadcasts and composed lyrics to the tunes she heard. There were many attempts on her life and dangerous circumstances for the children in the choir, yet God was faithful throughout that difficult time, showing Himself able to miraculously protect and provide for them in various circumstances. This was an encouraging book to read because of the courage and boldness of these Christians. The writing is very simple; it would be easy to read this with a middle-grade child and junior high teens and they'd understand it. Many of the chapters were from stand-alone articles in various Christian magazines, so there was some repetition and the chapters did not quite flow super smoothly, but it was still easy to follow and the remarkable story outweighed any qualms I had about the writing quality.
Rating: PG (reference to several people being murdered or injured for their faith, nothing too explicit or detailed, though)
The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See (audiobook) ★★★★☆
An engrossing and fascinating historical novel about the remarkable Haenyeo women of the small South Korean island of Jeju. These women, known as Sea Women, are part of a collective of multi-generational females (some as old as their 80s!) who dive into the frigid waters to collect sea creatures that are sold at various restaurants and markets. The island is matriarchal since the women are the ones bringing home the bacon (or sea urchins and octopus, in this case) and the husbands typically stay at home to cook and take care of the children. The plot surrounds two of these women from childhood through old age as their friendship is tested to a breaking point. The context is just as important as the plot, focusing not only on the traditional and highly respected Haenyo career, but the gruesome historical context between the 1930s to 2008, which included Japanese occupation before and during WWI, the Korean War, and the Jeju Uprising of 1948-1949 (where anywhere from 14,000-30,000 Jeju Islanders were murdered) and political unrest that dominated several decades afterwards. The author's website for the book has useful articles and a video for more info on the real Haenyeo women of Jeju Island (check HERE) which was really interesting to me since I had never heard of this island or grueling and impressive career. The writing is atmospheric, absorbing, and well-paced.
Rating: PG-13 (references to different types of abuse against women, descriptive scenes of violence, references to sex (nothing explicit).
Baby 411: Clear Answers & Smart Advice for Your Baby's First Year, 5th Edition by Dr. Ari Brown and Denise Fields ★★★★★
This is a whopper of a book, so it was a little daunting to pick it up, but I am glad I did. Dr. Brown has clear, concise, easy-to-understand answers to hundreds of questions that parents have asked her or other doctors (or google, if we are being honest). As a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner, I agreed with around 98% of her advice and the rare things that I didn't were more matters of opinion. As a future first-time mama, I appreciated her candor, humor (this is definitely not a dry textbook!), and the perfect mix between giving descriptive answers so a parent won't feel they're talked down to but also not so heady and technical that a parent would feel lost in the medical lingo. Chapters are categorized by different major topics including the newborn stage, feeding, sleep, discipline, growth and development, common illnesses, vaccines, and a plethora of other subjects. This is a great book to read from cover to cover, like I did, or a parent can use it as a reference guide to flip to a specific chapter or question when appropriate. I have seen this book on multiple bookshelves of NPs and MDs at our pediatric primary care clinic so it is a winner amongst medical professionals, which is also reassuring that the advice given is legit.
The Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery by Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile (audiobook) ★★★★★
This is a fantastic resource for anyone interested in learning more about the Enneagram, an ancient personality tool that focuses on both positive as well as negative sides of each personality type, or this case, of of the nine numbers. This is incredibly readable (or, if like me, you are listening to the audiobook, Cron does a great job reading it) and comprehensive guide to the Enneagram for beginners but I can see myself returning to this as a resource again and again because of how well things are discussed. Cron and Stabile approach the Enneagram from both a psychological as well as a spiritual (specifically Christian) perspective, which I really liked. The reader first learns about the history of the Enneagram and then the proceeding chapters look at all nine types, including what strengths and weaknesses (and for the Christian, what sins) are closely related or common, what the childhood of that number was likely like that propelled them into the motives, behaviors, and actions of that specific number, as well as action steps for self-improvement. I also liked that each type has "wings" and numbers they gravitate towards in stress, which was helpful because I kept thinking that I can see myself in a few different types rather than just one, so that concept helped me feel less boxed into one specific number. The chapters also looked at how each number typically responds to interpersonal relationships and work environments. Ian mixes anecdotes of people he knows when describing different numbers, which helped me understand more about what each number looked like in the real world, and often his stories were very comical, which further made this such a fun read rather than a dry manual on personality typing.
Reminded me of: Cron's writing (and audiobook reading) style reminded me of Bob Goff.
The Huntress by Kate Quinn (audiobook) ★★★★☆
The hunt is on. A former English war journalist teams up with a former Russian female bomber pilot to track down the elusive and dangerous women nicknamed The Huntress, a Nazi criminal who escaped after WWII, who is wanted for heinous crimes against both military and civilians. On the other side of the world, a teenage girl has a new step-mother with a slight European accent and something just doesn't seem right about her. This is an absorbing, fast-paced, action-packed novel of epic proportions (a door-stopper at 560 pages!). I particularly liked getting the war experience from a gritty, tough-around-the edges female Russian bomber pilot since I have not read anything circa WWII from the Russian perspective. There was a ton of suspense, danger, and intrigue about this story; it was hard to put down. I felt like the ending was a bit rushed and too tidy but it made sense and I was happy with how it wrapped up overall.
Rating: PG-13 (a ton of F-bombs and other cuss words; a lot of sex scenes between heterosexual couples as well as two females).
Reminded me of: The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah