April Book Reviews
(This is book #8 in my Unread Bookshelf Project, in which I try to read books I have owned for a while)
Light From Heaven (Mitford # 9) by Jan Karon (audiobook) ★★★★★
With all the craziness of COVID-19, I wanted to return to a comfort read that I knew would be relaxing. I adore the Mitford books and returning over and over to the idyllic and charming town of Mitford is just what I needed this month. I am sure I am not the demographic for this series since most readers are several decades older than me, but that hasn't stopped me. Tim Kavanagh is an elderly retired Episcopal priest who agrees to a short-term pastoral role in reviving a mountain church that has been closed for forty years. As if that is not enough to keep him busy, he is also fostering a teenage boy who is definitely rough-around-the edges, house-sitting (or more like farm-sitting), and trying to figure out how to tell his adopted son some extremely big news that will change the course of his life. As in all of the previous Mitford books, Jan Karon expertly weaves together multiple plots from the beloved Mitford townspeople, all of which connect to the central character of Tim Kavanagh. She also continues to balance humor with heartache and tough situations. Karon has a thoughtful way of including Biblical insight and encouragement into the narrative without it being trite or preachy. As I have said before, she is a very rare author that I can trust. I know I won't encounter anything shocking or vulgar, but what I will always encounter is a heartwarming, inspiring, and endearing story that will remind me the importance of community and being grounded in the knowledge of God's love for His children.
Chasing Fireflies by Charles Martin (audiobook) ★★★★★
Charles Martin is another author (along with Jan Karon) I trust and one I turn to when I want a comfort read. His books usually deal with difficult, often heartbreaking subjects such as illness and death, yet they are saturated in hope and self-discovery as well. Chase Walker is a journalist on the hunt for answers regarding two cases: one that is decades old and one that is hot-off-the presses. He tries to figure out the truth about the mute young boy who was recently found abandoned near train tracks in his town, which reminds him of his own mysterious past. Martin's novels are always set in the South, so they carry an atmospheric tone that is warm and endearing. There were some pretty sad themes, including child abuse, so it was definitely not a light read. But Martin is masterful at balancing the heavy with the bittersweet. My favorite character in the book is "Unc", who is a somewhat hillbilly foster dad to Chase and is constantly spouting out hilarious metaphors and colloquialisms, many of which made absolutely no sense to me, such as "You can put your boots in the oven, but that doesn't make them biscuits", "letting the cat out of the bag is a lot easier than putting it in", and "It's so dry the trees are bribing the dogs".
Rated: PG (trigger warning: child abuse of different forms)
The Swiss Family Robinson by Joann David Wyss (audiobook) ★★★★☆
After reading Gulliver's Travel's last month (and being surprised by how enjoyable it was), I picked up another classic adventure story I have owned for awhile (though I ended up listening to the audiobook rather than actually reading my physical copy). While Gulliver is alone in his adventures, Swiss Family Robinson is, you guessed it, about a family. They are the sole survivors of a shipwreck and wash ashore an uninhabited island where they spend years building their homestead. From learning to garden in the jungle-like vegetation to hunting down unknown animals for food while taming others for pets or plowing their land, the father, mother, and sons in this family show creative ingenuity, courage, endurance, and faith in God despite their circumstances. I enjoyed how involved the father was in the family's Bible devotions and prayers (which was a surprise to see since this isn't necessarily a Christian book) as well as child-rearing, particularly in developing a sense of independence and self-learning along with respect and commitment to the family unit. They were a solid family who loved each other and worked together to live for many years on an island of their own, not knowing if they'd ever see other humans again. It was great to read this classic and know the story that I had only been vaguely familiar with. It was written in the form of a travel journal, so it had a lot of descriptions and chronological details of their adventures (we did this, then we did that...), which was understandable, but I typically like a story with more character development and getting inside their head to know their motives and emotions, which this book did not focus on. This made the play-by-play of new discoveries and building projects become a bit tedious at times.
(This is book #9 in my Unread Bookshelf Project, in which I try to read books I have owned for a while)
Little Men by Louisa May Alcott (audiobook) ★★★★☆
For fans of Little Women, this is the continuation of the story, which focuses on Jo and her school for boys alongside her husband, Professor Bhaer. Plumfield Estate school is home to a gaggle of boys, most of which are orphaned or come from poor families. Mr. and Mrs. Bhaer not only teach them the basics like math and history, but they also mentor the boys in a creative, loving, and sometimes unconventional educational philosophy that instills value and a sense of belonging for each of the boys. I started this book a few months ago and took a break because I was not loving it. After hearing Jamie C. Martin describe Little Men as influencing her family culture in her book, Introverted Mom, I decided to pick it back up and read it from the perspective of a parent and teacher of my son, which was a lot more interesting and inspiring than just reading about the mischievous trouble some of the boys get themselves into. I will share a few of Jo's insights that stayed with me:
“…for no matter how lost and soiled and worn-out wandering sons may be, mothers can forgive and forget every thing as they fold them into their fostering arms. Happy the son whose faith in his mother remains unchanged, and who, through all his wanderings, has kept some filial token to repay her brave and tender love.”
“Love is a flower that grows in any soil, works its sweet miracles undaunted by autumn frost or winter snow, blooming fair and fragrant all the year, and blessing those who give and those who receive.”
“Simple, genuine goodness is the best capital to found the business of this life upon. It lasts when fame and money fail, and is the only riches we can take out of this world with us.”
This is a beautiful and Biblically sound devotional for the days leading up to Easter. It is comprised of forty devotionals that each reflect a different aspect of Jesus' love for humanity that led to His death and resurrection. Some of the daily reflections in the seven-week devotional include: Jesus loves perfectly, Jesus rejects no one, Jesus pays attention, Jesus honors the dishonored, Jesus drives out fear, Jesus loves the least of these, Jesus seeks out the lost, Jesus is patient, Jesus love the unlovable, Jesus offers hope, Jesus' love forgives, and Jesus sacrificed everything. On each of the seven Sundays of Lent, there is a special devotional with a Scriptural passage to read, questions to discuss, and a hymn to listen to or sing. The Monday through Friday devotionals includes a Bible story, a devotional that is two to three pages long, followed by a challenge (practical application), a prayer, and list of Biblical passages to study to dig further in that theme. Saturdays are for activities, and she offers a plethora of fun and creative ways that a person on their own or a whole family can celebrate Lent and Easter. She starts off the book with a chapter on the history and intentionality of observing Lent as Christians and how this devotional can be a resource to prepare hearts for Easter. Asheritah's love and knowledge of Scripture is clearly evident in this devotional. Her Advent devotional, Unwrapping the Names of Jesus, was just as wonderful and I am glad I used this Lent devotional for the days that led me to Easter.
Roots & Sky: A Journey Home in Four Seasons by Christie Purifoy ★★★★☆
Christie and her husband purchased a sprawling Victorian brick farmhouse in rural Pennsylvania when she was a few weeks from being due to birth her fourth child. In this memoir that spans that first year in her forever home, she thoughtfully and poetically writes about what she'd been longing for years: coming home. Amidst a year of house renovation projects, nursing a newborn who's struggling to gain weight, gardening, meeting neighbors, and enduring some difficult and melancholy postpartum emotions, Purifoy's beautiful prose is vulnerable, honest, thought-provoking, and hopeful. Her reflections on Biblical themes, coupled with day-to-day application of those truths as a mom was especially valuable to me. She has a creative way of explaining the most mundane details that is skilled and artful without being too ethereal or high-level to keep me from understanding what she's talking about. I enjoy memoirs that follow a liturgical calendar, so this was another highlight for me with Purifoy's book structure using the four seasons. Lastly, her descriptions of the expansive land, including her gardening adventures and the centuries-old trees that line their long driveway was so atmospheric, I felt like I could picture it in my mind. It reminded me of simpler times when we weren't focused on technology, but rather on the beauty and usefulness of nature.
“If I want to abide in this day, to make my home in it, I must only tear my eyes from tomorrow and look around. For there is a wholeness to this day that I do not want to miss...Our lives are stories built of small moments. Ordinary experiences. It is too easy to forget that our days are adding up to something astonishing. We do not often stop to notice the signs and wonders. The writing on the wall. But some days we do.”
Reminds me of: One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp
(This is book #10 in my Unread Bookshelf Project, in which I try to read books I have owned for a while)
Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton (audiobook) ★★★★☆
As the majority of the more recent historical novels are apt to do, Cleeton follows the dual-plot, where one is in the past and one is in the present day. Marisol's beloved grandmother, who was more like a mom to her, has recently passed away and she is charged with the important and possibly dangerous task of spreading her ashes in her homeland of Cuba. A political refugee in 1959 when Fidel Castro came to power, her grandmother Elisa had bittersweet memories of her beloved Cuba, many of which were full of heartache. The novel switches from 2017 to 1959, following these two women and uncovering some long hidden secrets. The writing was atmospheric and gripping; Cleeton's descriptions of Havana, Cuba were so detailed, I could picture many of the scenes in my mind's eye. She conveniently created a character who is a history professor in Cuba, so his long monologues of Cuba's tumultuous history of the Cuban Revolution, most notably the overthrow of President Batista by Fidel Castro with the 26th of July Movement, and then the subsequent decades of communism that crippled the country. I learned so much, and it was incredibly intriguing as well as heartbreaking to hear about how many Cubans still struggle to make it despite a surge in tourism and other business. This is a great one for those who like to dig into history via storytelling. I am looking forward to reading the sequel soon!
Rated: PG-13 (some language and subtle sexual references/scenes)
Uncle Fred In Springtime: A Blandings Story by P.G. Wodehouse ★★★☆ ☆
This novel has given to me by a friend when I mentioned not reading Wodehouse before. It was humorous with wit and creativity, but it just didn't keep my captivated. There was just too much going on, especially since the plot focused on multiple people pretending to be people they were not, but in a comical and good-natured way rather than greedy or vicious schemes. I'll try to explain without confusing you or me, ha! Pongo is an irresponsible young adult with a gambling problem and owes two hundred fifty pounds, a hefty sum. He reluctantly asks his dear old Uncle Fred (aka Lord Ickenham) for help to pay off his debts. Uncle Fred is a bit of an eccentric and gets himself in ridiculous predicaments; some even think he's got a few screws loose. They proceed to get entangled in a confusing, warped scheme when asked by Lord Emsworth to protect his prized pet pig named The Empress from the clutches of a deranged (maybe missing a few screws himself) Duke of Dunstable by pretending to be a psychologist during his visit to Blandings Castle. By the end of the story, there is a whole lot of imposter-ing going on, with dizzying schemes and misunderstandings and manipulating to make my head spin. The dialogues between all the characters is very witty and brimming with silly vernacular and slang, which I enjoyed. But the more lying and scheming that was happening, even though it was somewhat innocent, just led to a loss in interest for me. I definitely like books that are more character-driven and don't typically read comedy, so it was a stretch from my usual and is unfair for me to judge it on the types of books I usually read. So, for a comedic and lighthearted escape from reality with a landscape of pre-war British upper-class gentlemen, it was enjoyable.
Reminds me of: Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome (which I enjoyed more)
Miss Burma by Charmaine Craig ★★★★☆ (audiobook)
Miss Burma is a sprawling novel that brings to light Myanmar’s tumultuous and violent modern history through one family. Benny is an Indian Sephardic Jew who marries Khin, a member of the often-persecuted minority group of Burma (no Myanmar) called the Karen. Their union is one of deep miscommunication, from their inability to understand each other's languages in early years to vastly different experiences apart from each other in the decades of war to come. Their eldest daughter, Louisa, is also a focal point in the story as she competes for the first ever Miss Burma title in a prestigious beauty pageant that is much more about politics and propaganda than talent. Their story spans from the years before the Japanese Occupation of WWII when Burma was part of the British Empire through the first decades of military dictatorship of General Ne Win and the ensuing civil war that is still going on, ravaging Burma (now Myanmar) of their minority ethnicity groups. This is an ambitious work that exposes the suffering, violence, and overall turbulent history that is not widely known, at least not by me. I learned a ton, though some of the politics was hard to fully grasp (especially the USA's questionable involvement). It was heartbreaking to hear about a lot of the very graphic war crimes committed by the Japanese during WWII and by Burma nationalists against the Karen people. The political upheavals were vicious, so I didn't expect a happy story in the least, but I also did not know how dark the story would feel. The characters are flawed (and at times unlikeable) and often suffering in some way and making self-destructive choices, so there was a melancholy, almost hopeless tone. This novel is based on the author's mother and grandparents, which is fascinating and appalling to me because of how much heartache they endured. There were some really hard parts to get through, and for that reason, I cannot recommend this to everyone. But at the same time, it is the only novel I know of that focuses on Burma/Myanmar's history, so I felt it was a timely and important book. The writing was beautiful and I could tell this novel, which took the author fifteen years to complete, was a labor of love.
Rated: PG-13 (several sexual references with incredibly crass language. Trigger warning: some very graphic violent war crimes including torture and rape.
Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport ★★★★☆ (audiobook)
Cal Newport's big idea in this book is that "to produce at your peak level you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction. Put another way, the type of work that optimizes your performance is deep work.”After reading Cal Newport's brilliant Digital Minimalism a few months ago, I was ready to tackle this equally well-acclaimed book. It became a "buddy read" with my husband since I bought it for his birthday recently and he'd been wanting to read it too. The first part of the book is a critique on contemporary culture of distracted, shallow work and how it can prevent you from reaching your potential in your work place. He describes why deep work is valuable, rare, and meaningful. In the second part, he shares ways to practice deep work in your specific work environment, including embracing boredom (rather than chronic multi-tasking), managing social media strictly, and draining the "shallow" work that can be delegated to others or to computerized systems. It was a lot more practical and applicable to for my husband's work situation than mine as a stay-at-home-mom since it is very hard to find time when I can truly do "deep work" in this stage as a baby mom. But there were still great tips for overall improving my concentration and decreasing distractions so that I could utilize even small chunks of time for deep work when our baby is sleeping. I felt like a lot of his points were echoed or further delved into in his latest book, Digital Minimalism, which I preferred of the two.
Simon the Fiddler by Paulette Jiles ★★★☆☆(audiobook)
Rated: PG-13 (language)
Big and Little Activity Devotional by Rachel C. Swanson and Jacy Corral
This is a great way for mothers and toddlers to both have a bit of quiet time together. There are creative coloring pages and activity sheets geared towards children on one side of the book and for adults on the other. The devotional pairings are very short, probably taking a minute or two to read. They have a matching lesson at the child and adult level. For example, there is a devotional on Jonah with a complicated maze for mom and an easier one for the child. Activities include world searches, crossword puzzles, word scrambles, mazes, search and find, decode the word, and others. As an introverted mom, I can see this being a fun way to rest for five to ten minutes. I can work on my page and tear out the page for my son (once he is a bit older) to either scribble on or actually complete the activity, depending on his age. Sometimes, all a mom has is a few minutes for a mental break and for some people, doing activities like this is fun as well as relaxing. If that sounds like you, then this could be useful to have nearby to pick up for those little fringe minutes during a busy day.
Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book for free from B&H/Lifeway Bloggers in exchange for an honest review, which I have provided here.
The Darling Buds of May by H.E. Bates
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 by W. Phillip Keller (re-read)
War of Words by Paul David Tripp (re-read)
Essential Truths of the Christian Faith by R.C. Sproul
Risen Motherhood by Emily Jensen and Laura Wifler