July Book Reviews

Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano ☆ (audiobook)

When a commercial airline crashes, there is one survivor: a twelve-year old boy whose parents and brother are part of the passengers who died. Flipping back and forth between the hours before the crash and the days, months, and years post-crash, this gripping novel focuses less on the crash and more on the grieving process of a pre-teen. There are multiple viewpoints in the plane scenes from a variety of different passengers, which further add depth and heartbreak to the many lives lost. Napolitano based this book on several plane crashes that made the news in recent years. Edward's life after the crash is realistic and raw; it is a life-long process of grieving and learning to live a new life apart from what was normal before the trauma he experienced. Napolitano portrayed this with compassion and wisdom. I especially resonated and respected this quote, spoken by a therapist to Edward as he dealt with survivor guilt and a grief he was starting to feel like was lasting too long: "What happened is baked into your bones, Edward. It lives under your skin. It’s not going away. It’s part of you and will be part of you every moment until you die. What you’ve been working on, since the first time I met you, is learning to live with that.” 

Rating: PG-13 (language, sexual content)

Risen Motherhood: Gospel Hope for Everyday Moments by Emily Jensen and Laura Wifler 

I have been following Risen Motherhood  ministry through their blog, podcast, and Instagram feed since I was pregnant last summer. Emily and Laura are moms of young children and they desire the truth of the gospel to permeate every area of their own lives as well as those mamas to whom they minister. The book is focused on how the gospel of Jesus can give mothers hope for everyday challenges. In the first part of the book, they unpack the gospel, God's purpose for motherhood, and what they mean by the term 'risen motherhood'. In the second part of the book, they have fourteen chapters that each focus on a different part of life that can be impacted by the gospel. This includes: our heart attitudes, our transitions, our marriages, our birth experiences, our postpartum bodies, our food choices, our traditions, our service, our self-care, our children with challenges, and our school choices. For each of these areas, they dive into the overarching gospel story of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Consummation. For example, for the chapter on marriage, they look at the first marriage, the union of Adam and Eve (Creation), their first sin causing a divided union with God (Fall), God's promise for a perfect unity in Christ through His work on the cross (Redemption), and a future hope of being in union with Christ forever one day (Consummation). In the final part of the book, they have two wonderfully practical chapters. One is called Are the Little Years the Lost Years? and the other is called Living Risen Motherhood. Each chapter of the book ends with a trio of discussion questions. I have been reading and discussing this book alongside other young moms at church and it has brought up so many great conversations where I have felt challenged and encouraged to grow in my walk with Christ as a new (often sleep-deprived, stressed, frazzled) young mama.

Unashamed by Lecrae Moore ☆ (audiobook)

Lecrae's rap music is gospel-centered and often tells the story of his own redemption story. Now, in his memoir, fans can get to know him even better. Raised by his mom after his dad left them, he had a tumultuous adolescence experimenting with drugs, alcohol, and sex. Always searching for acceptance, love, identity, and belonging, he was exposed to the gospel at different key times in his life, but continued to struggle into adulthood. God did not give up on Lecrae even when Lecrae was ready to give up on God. His testimony is powerful and encouraging that God's love is deeper than our deepest pits. Lecrae is humble, honest, and vulnerable in sharing the most difficult parts of his past. He also explains the difficulty of being known as a Christian rapper and how that can alienate his music from reaching non-Christians, to whom he feels compelled to share the good news of Jesus. His explanation of being a Christian who creates rap music was reminiscent of Madeleine L'Engle's description of the Christian artist in her book, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art. Lecrae's music is creative and powerful, so I was not surprised that his memoir writing was equally exceptional. I used to listen to his earlier albums and loved hearing how he incorporated Scripture into his music so flawlessly that it never felt preachy or cheesy. His sound, rhythm, and style have changed since then, but his heart for sharing the gospel through his music has not. This memoir was refreshing, raw, and continually pointed towards God's redemptive power.

“When I decided to follow Jesus that night in Atlanta, I assumed that becoming a Christian would make life easier. I thought the rest of my life would be smiling and smooth sailing. I assumed I wouldn’t be tempted by women and partying and acceptance and all the things that I’d been a slave to for so many years. I thought I would walk around with a continual inner peace and serenity like Gandhi or something. This turns out to be a lie that too many people believe. You’ll actually experience more temptation, not less, after you become a Christian. Following Jesus doesn’t mean you’ll start living perfectly overnight. It certainly doesn’t mean that your problems will disappear. Rather than ridding you of problems or temptations, following Jesus just means that you have a place—no, a person—to run to when they come. And the power to overcome them.”

“Success is not what I've done compared with what others have done. Success is what I've done compared with what God has called me to do.”

“Scars are the evidence that wounds can heal. That wounds don't last forever. That healing is possible.”

“I had made the same mistake a lot of Christians make: I saw my connection with God as a contractual relationship, rather than a covenantal relationship. All contracts have terms, but covenants don’t. They last forever. In a contractual relationship, you’re always worried about breaking the rules. In a covenantal relationship, you’re only concerned with loving the other party as much as you can.”

“My desire for acceptance is one of the crosses that I carry. Each morning I have to attend a funeral. My own. I have to wake up and once again die to my desires for people's approval.”

“Was I the rebel kid? The lost college student who just wanted to be accepted? The legalistic man who battled self-righteousness? Was I a husband or a father or a hip-hop artist? Like a tree trunk, all those people were a part of me. They are a part of me. But more than anything, Lecrae is a child who is unconditionally loved by God. I’m a sinner who has been rescued by God from my brokenness and called to glorify the One who has never left my side. That’s who Lecrae is, and that’s who I’ll always be.”

Rated: PG  (drugs, alcohol, sex)

Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age by Sherry Turkle ☆ (audiobook)

"We live in a technological world in which we are always communicating and yet we have sacrificed conversation for mere connection. We turn away from each other and toward our phone. We are forever everywhere. But to empathize, to grow, to love and be loved, to take the measure of ourselves or of another, to fully understand and engage with the world around us, we must be in conversation. It is the most human -- and humanizing -- thing that we do." Thus starts the dust jacket summary of this fascinating andpractical book on rethinking our technology use. Sherry Turkle is a sociologist and licensed clinical psychologist who is also a "media researcher": she has spent the last thirty years studying the psychology of people's relationships with technology. She presents her data on the dangers of always being online. Though we pride ourselves on always being connected and available, this often negatively impacts the people closest to us. Rather than engaging in thoughtful conversation, dinner time often includes social media and email checks. My generation of millennials often struggle with in-person deep, meaningful conversations (beyond shallow pleasantries) with older generations who were raised without technology, in-person interviews, and even phone calls. I know I hate phone calls and when Turkle explained why many people my age prefer email over phone calls, it made a lot of sense: with emails, texts, and other forms of technology communication, we can take our time in replying, formulating a intelligent-sounding reply, choosing our words carefully during an argument, or adding emojis and gifs to explain our emotions. While these may work, they often lack depth and vulnerability since we are preparing ourselves ahead of time. In-person conversations and phone calls can be scary for me, especially since I often feel like I will say the wrong thing or not have something interesting to say. There's hope for me, and for others who want to make improve their conversation skills: just do it. Practice: put the phone away during social gatherings, and set boundaries  on how you allow technology in your life. Turkle provides not only the research to back up her claim that technology is ruining conversation, but offers practical tips on making changes allow space for conversation. She divides the book into sections discussing her "case for conversation" and how it can benefit ourselves (in promoting solitude and self-reflection), families, friendships, romantic relationships, education, and work. This is a fascinating book that kept my attention throughout.

When We Left Cuba by Chanel Cleeton ☆ (audiobook)

I read Next Year in Havana a few months ago and enjoyed it, so I was curious about this novel. Although it can stand alone, I think the supporting characters are better understood if read in order, with Next Year in Havana read first. The the latter, the  focus is mainly on Elisa, the oldest of the sugar heiress Perez sisters from Cuba. Now the focus is on her glamorous and rule-breaking sister, Beatriz. Impulsive, secretive, and the object of many men's admiration and flirtation, she teams up with the CIA in search of revenge against Fidel Castro and his regime. Along the way, she falls for a guy who just might complicate things. I enjoy historical fiction and until I read Havana, had very little understanding of the Cuban Revolution. This novel also deals with Cold War tensions, the immigrant experience of the Perez family -- once an illustrious, family in their native Cuba, now on the fringe of the high society of the Florida coast. I am a lot more like Elisa (rule-follower)  than the rebellious, strong-willed Beatriz, so it was harder to connect with her or understand some of her seemingly impulsive, disastrous, and even self-sabatoging decisions. But she was intriguing, determined, loyal, and courageous, which definitely makes for an edge-of-your-seat reading experience. This was just as (or maybe a bit more) suspenseful than Next Year in Havana.  They complement each other very well.

Rating: PG-13 (some sexual content)

A Circle of Quiet (Crosswick Journals, #1) by Madeleine L'Engle 

L'Engle is famous for her bestselling novel, A Wrinkle in Time (among other equally masterful novels), but she was also a skillful nonfiction writer as well. In this contemplative collections of journal-style essays during her summers at their country home called Crosswick, she reflects on a variety of topics concerning the writing life as well as her intentional pursuit of being rather than doing, known also as ontology (her word of the summer) and the definition and exploration of 'self'.  She looks back at pivotal moments in her life, many of which occurred at Crosswicks. She also shares some of her faith journey.  She is witty and hilariously self-deprecating at times, while deeply thoughtful and wise on the next page. She tackles areas such as the dangers of censorship in literature, what makes a book deemed "childrens" literature, not being threatened by other writer's success in a competitive rat race but instead being inspired to create, and the importance of practice, practice, practice (or in a writer's world, write, write, write) even when not feeling passionate or even particularly motivated. This is a slow, meandering collection of essays, so it is best read without an expectation for an intriguing plot or lots of action (head straight for A Wrinkle in Time for that. You won't be disappointed!). I enjoyed her thoughts on the writing life as well as a bit of an inside look to the fascinating person behind so many wonderful novels.

“I'm apt to get drunk on words...Ontology: the word about the essence of things; the word about being.” 

“A self is not something static, tied up in a pretty parcel and handed to the child, finished and complete. A self is always becoming.”

“If it's not good enough for adults, it's not good enough for children. If a book that is going to be marketed for children does not interest me, a grownup, then I am dishonoring the children for whom the book is intended, and I am dishonoring books. And words.”

"I go into the museum and look at all the pictures on the walls. Instead of feeling my own insignificance. I want to go straight home and paint. A great painting, or symphony, or play, doesn't diminish us, but enlarges us, and we, too, want to make our own cry of affirmation to the power of creation behind the universe. This surge of creativity has nothing to do with competition, or degree of talent. When I hear a superb pianist, I can't wait to get to my own piano, and I play about as well now as I did when I was ten. A great novel, rather than discouraging me, simply makes me want to write. This response on the part of any artist is the need to make incarnate the new awareness we have been granted through the genius of someone else.” 

Of Literature and Lattes by Katherine Reay (audiobook) 

Reay digs deeper  into relationships introduced in The Printed Letter Bookshop, while also welcoming new faces. Alyssa Harrison is a twenty-something who is under FBI investigation after the demise of a Silicon Valley start-up at which she was employed. Reluctantly and as a last resort, she moves back home to a small Midwestern town in her childhood home with her mom. She has a very strained relationship with her mom and is very jaded at her mom's apparent transformation from the controlling mom she grew up with. Meanwhile, there's a new coffee shop in town and its owner is struggling to keep its doors open. His budding relationship with the daughter he never got to meet until a few months ago is also in jeopardy. In Reay's skilled style, there is plenty of character growth  that happens along the way for several characters, which is the main reason I keep returning to her books. There were a few other subplots happening and, similar to The Printed Letter Bookshop, chapters alternated from several different perspectives, which felt a bit jarring because there was a lot that happened throughout the different storylines, but overall it tied together nicely in classic Reay fashion. I enjoy Reay's books because they are somewhat formulaic without being repetitive; her characters all start out with major character flaws and as the stories progress, they mature and work through various issues. I also appreciate that her books are clean without sex scenes or cussing.

Rating: G

Mother to Son: Letters to a Black Boy on Identity and Hope by Jasmine L. Holmes 

A beautiful, thought-provoking, tear-jerking collection of letters from the author to her two-year old son. Her mama heart, bursting with love for her first son, shines through as she shares many of the trials as well as opportunities he will encounter as an African American man. She shares experiences as an African American  Christian women who grew up in a predominantly white Christian church and how she often felt unknown and misunderstood. Her experience as a history teacher also shines through as she dives into pertinent African American history that she wants her son to understand more fully. She focuses the majority of her letters around the undeniable fact that her son is made in the image of God and that his worth and dignity are secure in Him rather than what culture may subtly or not so subtly teach. She also has incredibly wise ways of explaining that it is okay for him to be offended when he encounters racism and how he can be an advocate, especially for Black women. She encourages him to listen to a variety of voices rather than only those which resemble his own and advocates for being a bridge for racial reconciliation. She also has a chapter on encouraging him to seek wise counsel through mentorship. I can't even begin to explain how dear this book is to me. Holmes does not shy away from writing about how she has experienced racism but she does not stop there. She fills her letters with so much grace-filled, gospel-pointing truth on every page. I loved hearing her story, though I was so angry for her when I read about hurtful things she experienced in the Church because of her skin color. I absolutely loved the instruction, encouragement, inspiration, and hope she passed along to her son (and readers)  through these letters.

Hill Country by Janice Woods Windle 

I have lived in Texas for nearly five years and enjoy reading historical novels set in the Lone Star State since it is a fun way to learn more about about Texas history. Hill Country is a sprawling novel that is based on the author's paternal grandmother, Laura Hoge Woods. When Mrs. Woods died in 1966, she left a manuscript of her autobiography for Janice to finish and publish. Decades later, Janice has followed real facts closely, while also adding some of her own imagination.  Laura was born in 1870, a time when the Comanches and Apaches roamed Texas, kidnapping children and murdering families, seeking revenge for the homesteaders who stole their land. She has a terrifying near-death experience at the age of seven. She lived her whole live in the dry yet beautiful Texas Hill Country: she grew up in a small homestead in Blanco, where she helped her family run their farm. Then she married a man named Peter Woods and helped him with his large horse farm and soon became a mother. Sounds like a pretty conventional life of a Hill Country woman, yet amidst the grueling farm life she also had an  adventurous life. She was incredible political, spreading support throughout nearby counties for Democratic candidates of both Texas legislature as well as presidential candidates. She met Presidents Theodore Roosevelt (who bought horses from her husband for his Rough Riders, the famous cowboy cavalry)  and Woodrow Wilson during their visits to the Hill Country, and her best friend's son (who also happened to be her son's best friend) was none other than Lyndon B. Johnson. She survived a dangerous train voyage across Texas with four-hundred of their finest horses where they were attacked by Mexican revolutionaries. She helped promote women's right to vote in Texas with a brilliant, albeit kinda sketchy blackmailing scheme of top Austin political officials who had disreputable secrets they wanted to be kept under wraps in exchange for voting for the suffrage law. She led a remarkable, ambitious life,  had enormous influence on political officials (she wrote regularly to LBJ while he was in office), and was a hard-working woman all of her life. There was a lot to admire in such a woman. But she also seemed impulsive and prideful, always convinced her way was best. She was often  meddling and twisting things to go her way (especially in the life of her son, who she tried to push into politics and definitely fit the "helicopter mom" stereotype) and I would even say she was sometimes manipulative. It was all for her family's best interest and she did have a lot of discernment and wisdom, but I don't think her means always justify the ends. Her contentious relationship with her daughter, who spiraled into serious mental illness, was really sad and difficult to read since I felt like she could have been there for her daughter when she needed her on so many occasions rather than running around  to political rallies. But, who am I to judge? I struggled with some of her mothering choices, but they were good opportunities for reflection. Laura Hoge Woods was controversial, outspoken, and full of  grit amidst the hard life of the rugged Texas Hill Country homestead life. I enjoyed reading about various towns in the Hill Country that I have visited, since I live less than an hour from a lot of the Hill Country and enjoyed all of the historical and presidential tidbits that accompanied her life story.

Rating: PG to PG-13 (sexual content)

Home To Holly Springs (Mitford #10) by Jan Karon (audiobook) 

Father Tim, a retired Episcopal priest receives an anonymous letter at the beginning of this novel, urging him to return to his childhood home in Holly Springs, Mississippi, where he has not visited for decades. Both of his parents died many years ago, and yet there is still a lot of grieving and processing Father Time realizes he must do, especially regarding his father (with whom he never felt loved or accepted). Alternating from present tense and memories from his childhood, Father Tim re-encounters the pivotal moments that shaped the man he would become. This had a different feel than the previous Mitford books since it was not set in the idyllic and beloved town of Mitford, North Carolina. A new band of Holly Springs characters were introduced, all of whom were interesting, but I missed Mitford's quirky and lovable residents. I also did not appreciate that this book was not narrated by John McDonough, who narrated the previous nine books and has the perfect grandfatherly voice for Father Tim. Since I have "read" the ten Mitford books through audiobook, nine of which were narrated by him, his voice is the only once I can equate with Father Tim, so it felt off.  This audiobook was narrated by a competent, yet very young-sounding narrator, which was weird since Father Tim is in his seventies by this point. Aside from that, it was enjoyable, though probably my least favorite of the bunch for the above reasons. Like all the rest of the books, there were a lot of Christian themes, including redemption, forgiveness, and hope.

Rating: PG (unlike other Mitford books, which have never had any cuss words, this one surprisingly had a bit of "mild" language. Also, there were a few antagonistic and racist characters in his childhood who used the N word. There was a great teaching moment when Father Tim, as a child, is taught by his mother why this is an incredibly hurtful word).

The Scarlet Pimpernel by Emma Orczy (audiobook) 

This is the first book I read that is part of my "55 Books in 5 Years" challenge through the  Classics Club. I wrote a full summary of this book HERE.

What You Wish For by Katherine Center (audiobook) 

Samantha Casey loves her job as an elementary school librarian on the Gulf Coast island of Galveston, Texas. That is, until a new principal is hired and threatens to dismantle the very things she loves most about the school in the name of school security. Gone are field trips, creative and colorful outfits, artistic murals, and carefree play because school uniforms, bland walls, and incredibly tight security is the new plan of Principal Duncan Carpenter. The weird thing is, Samantha knew Duncan years before he was hired, and he was the exact opposite: a goofy teacher who never missed an opportunity to dance with his students and bring laughter and fun in the classroom. What could have happened between then and now?  I read many reviews about this recently released novel that made it seem lighthearted and feel-good. I can't say it wasn't these things at times, but there was definitely some hard themes, including grieving, that brought depth and vulnerability to the story. But amidst all of that was an overarching search for joy and hope. I enjoyed it overall, but was a tad bit annoyed with the modern colloquialisms slathered throughout the book, usually used by Samantha, many of which annoy me in real life: "like a boss", "literally...", "epic!", and using 'the' to accentuate something ("Duncan Carpenter? THE Duncan Carpenter??"). Gag. And Samantha had a few moments where she was incredibly impulsive and annoying, but in time, I eventually warmed up to her quirkiness. I loved this quote from the book: "Pay attention to the things that bring you joy".

Rating: PG to PG-13 (language)

The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell by Robert Dugoni 

Sam Hill was born with a rare condition called ocular albinism that caused his pupils to be red. Mercilessly bullied and called "Devil Boy" as an elementary schooler, he struggled with his identity and accepting what his Catholic mama continuously reminded him was "God's will" for his "extraordinary life".  Now as an adult, he has an opportunity to revisit and rid himself of some of his childhood demons and hopefully help several people in the process. This was an absorbing novel. It broke my heart to read about the taunting and severe bullying he experienced as well as his difficulties in accepting himself, and therefore, allowed a lot of people to walk all over him. He was relatable and believable; a kid (and adult) wanting to be liked despite looking different. His mom's strong Catholic faith (and the effect on Sam) was an overarching theme in the book. I found it interesting to read about his struggle with his faith and how his mom relied on her faith through various challenges and heartbreaks. I really liked her: she was tough-as-nails, fighting for the right for her child to go to a Catholic private school when he was denied admittance because his "condition" would be a distraction for other kids, cheering him on through his childhood and adolescence, and faithfully standing by her husband during incredibly difficult times. I also liked Sam's lifelong friends, Mickie and Ernie, who rooted for him and helped him through the loneliness of being different since they knew what it felt like too.

Rating: PG-13 (sexual content, language)

A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis  

This is the second book I read that is part of my "55 Books in 5 Years" challenge through the  Classics Club. Read the full review HERE.

Red Sky Over Hawaii by Sara Ackerman (audiobook) 

I had never read historical fiction set in Hawaii during WWII, so this book piqued my interest when I recently saw it reviewed on a book blogger's website. It was a great mix of suspense, relationship development (both friendships and a romance), and history that was new to me. Set in the days preceding and immediately proceeding Pearl Harbor, it centers around Lana Hitchcock, a young woman traveling from her home in Oahu to her childhood home on Big Island to see her ailing father, with whom she had been estranged for decades. There, she meets a family of kind Germans (parents with two daughters) and reconnects with her father's dear neighbor, an aging Japanese man and his adopted son. Due to the post-Pearl Harbor rounding up of Japanese and German civilians suspected of being sympathizers or spies, the German couple are taken away for questioning. After some unforeseen circumstances and possible danger, Lana impulsively takes all of  them to her father's remote cabin, hidden away in the Kilauea volcano's rain forest to protect them. But new challenges await in the nearly-finished cabin and she meets a handsome soldier who complicates things. With themes of family, friendship, trust, and a tad bit of magical realism (a bit like Moana), this novel was fascinating. I learned more about the Hawaiian culture as well as the detainment camps on Hawaii soil. There was a loose thread that never got resolved or even mentioned towards the end, so that was a tiny bit disappointing. But overall, the plot was nearly seamless and riveting, the relationships believable and endearing, and the atmospheric descriptions of one of Hawaii's isolated volcanic regions was beautiful.

Rating: PG 

Reading Stats for July:
Total Books Read: 15
Fiction: 9 (Historical Fiction: 4 ; Contemporary: 5)
Nonfiction: 6  (Memoir: 4 ;  Theology:  2 )

Audiobook: 9
Ebook: 1
Physical Book: 5

Books off my bookshelf (Goal= 2/mo): 3 in July; 15 total for 2020
Total books read in 2020 so far: 89 (Goal: 120)
Classics Club: 2 of 55 books read so far