Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Review: Bread and Wine

Lent is seen as a time for reflection. Many people give something up as they think about the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. In the weeks leading up to Easter, many Christians spend more time than usual in prayer and study. Bread and Wine would be a great starting place. These 72 readings come from writers throughout Christian history and across the theological spectrum, including Kathleen Norris, Oswald Chambers, Barbara Brown Taylor, John Donne, Christina Rossetti, Watchman Nee, Madeleine L'Engle, Saint Augustine, and Mother Teresa.

In a perfect world, I would have finished reading this collection of devotions during Lent and written my review right around Easter. Unfortunately, I finished it in May and am just reviewing it now. This is definitely not the kind of book you can race through. Many of the selections require some time to think about deeper commitment during Lent, the temptation and crucifixion of Christ, and the new life we experience because of Easter. As with any collection, different selections will resonate with different readers but the diversity in this book ensures that there is something for everyone.

This would be an excellent resource for any church. Pastors and teachers could certainly draw from this volume during Lent and any Christian will find new ways to think about Lent and Easter and new writers to inspire and teach them.

Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter
Plough Publishing House November 2014
430 pages
Read via Netgalley

Friday, July 6, 2018

Review: Smoke and Iron

Jess Brightwell has deliberately put himself in danger by delivering himself to the Archivist Magister of the Great Library. Pretending to be his twin brother, he offers an intriguing business deal between the Library and his family of smugglers. Jess hopes to work from the inside of the library to bring its deadly reign toppling down. Meanwhile, Morgan is imprisoned in a tower in the library, their mentor Wolfe is a prisoner, and Dario, Thomas, Khalila, and Santi have been betrayed and are on their way to certain death. In this fourth book, our heroes have to convince others to join their resistance--they have seen the evil the Library can perpetrate. Will anyone join them to stand against the Archivist Magister?

I have to confess I initially thought that Smoke and Iron would be the final book in this series and groaned a little when I saw that there would be a fifth book. But as I read the story, another one seemed like a great idea. Rachel Caine's world is so fascinating and it's easy to see how she could create another series or two about the origins of the Library and the people who swear to protect it.

Happily, this isn't a book where the epic creation of countries and societies makes up for lackluster characters. Caine has put together a large cast of characters, but it's never difficult to remember who is who and each one grows and changes as the story progresses. The characters have specific strengths, but they also have some big flaws that could ruin everything.

Rachel Caine has written a great series with a world that comes to life before your eyes and characters you have to cheer along their journey. I will certainly be reading the final book to find out what happens to this unlikely bunch of people who will fight to the end for the fate of the Library and for each other.

Smoke and Iron
The Great Library #4
By Rachel Caine
Berkley July 2018
448 pages
Read via Netgalley

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Review: Mother of Invention

Tessa Callahan is brilliant, but she hasn't been able to conceive one thing she wants: a child. She decides to use her abilities and resources to work on a new technology known as Seahorse. Tessa will personally assist the first three women who will be pregnant for just nine weeks before giving birth. She truly believes that this technology has the potential to help women spend less time feeling sick and more time pursuing their career and mothering their children. After the trial is underway, Tessa learns the dark origins of the technology and the secrets that allow them to continue. She will have to decide whether to see these mothers through to birth or drag the truth out into the light at the expense of her dreams and the mothers she has promised to protect.

This story asks some compelling questions. Would speeding up pregnancy actually help us? Do we need those nine months to bond with our child and prepare for a new part of our lives? If this kind of technology did exist, how would we decide who received it and who had to wait out a full pregnancy? Would having this distinction become just another round of the vaginal birth vs. cesarean, breastfeeding vs. bottle, working mother vs. stay-at-home mother wars?

Tessa seems to really want to help other women, but the reader can see where her own blind spots might hurt them even if she can't. There is a lot going on in this book, but Caeli Wolfson Widger writes compassionately and compellingly. While some of the characters in this story read like thinly veiled versions of people you might read about in the news, the questions about parenthood and the ethics of technology set in the midst of edge-of-your-seat thriller make a powerful and fascinating story.

Mother of Invention
By Caeli Wolfson Widger
Little A May 2018
364 pages
Read via Netgalley

Friday, June 15, 2018

Exit, Pursued by a Bear: Can We Have Nice Things In YA?

A note before we get started: This post will have spoilers for Exit, Pursued by a Bear and discussion of rape and rape culture.


In Exit, Pursued by a Bear, protagonist Hermione Winters is drugged and raped at cheerleading camp. She doesn't remember anything, so she doesn't know who the rapist is. It's even possible he is one of the boys on her squad, someone who she sees every day and considers a friend. Throughout the story, readers witness Hermione cautiously move back into her life--she goes back to school, starts seeing a therapist, and returns to the cheerleading team.

I thought this book was great. E.K. Johnston is a really excellent writer and it is clear that she cares about her characters. Hermione gets the help that she needs as she recovers from trauma, her family and friends are supportive and caring, and by the end of the book, she can see how to keep moving forward despite the terrible thing that has happened to her.

Then I did something silly and I read some reviews of this book. I found several people who thought this book was unrealistic. They wanted to know where the public shame was and why her friends took care of her instead of abandoning her. The only person who is awful after the assault is Hermione's boyfriend, but even he eventually supports her after their cheerleading teammates confront him. To some readers, it seemed unimaginable that a girl who has been raped would have a fun night with her friends or laugh with her therapist.

I guess it all comes down to the reason that we read stories. Do we read to be reminded of how terrible the world is or do we read to imagine that we can do better? When teens read this book, I think they should believe that people will be there for them if they ever find themselves in a situation like Hermione's. I know YA is not always realistic, but I don't think there is a problem with it reflecting the best of us--the parents who support us, the friends who won't abandon us, and the community that supports us even (and maybe especially) when everything is falling apart.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Review: Inspired

Rachel Held Evans grew up loving the stories of bravery and faith in the Bible. But as she grew up, she had some questions. How could a good God wipe out a generation of Egyptian children to lead the Israelites out of Egypt or reward Abraham for almost killing his own son? Why did her church believe some parts of the Epistles were still relevant and some were not? Her pastors and professors seemed more eager to get her to be quiet than to really answer her questions, so she started doing her own research and discovered different kinds of theology. In her uncertainty, she found a way to love the complicated and unexpected stories of the Bible all over again.

In Inspired, Evans looks at the different kinds of texts that we find in the Bible. There are tales that tell us the origin of the world, war stories, stories of resistance and deliverance, and letters and recollections from the early days of the Christian church. She gives each section new life by reimagining it--Hagar tells her own story and proudly declares that she was the only person to give God a new name, Job becomes a modern professor who has an unexpected encounter with some colleagues and a cafeteria worker, and Peter stepping out of the boat to Jesus becomes a choose-your-own-adventure during a trip to Israel.

These retellings are interesting and many of them made me think of well-known stories in new ways. But Evans challenges us even further. Many people experience Christianity as a long list of things you must check off, that you must act a certain way, and believe these specific things. But it can quickly become complicated when we admit that Scripture sometimes contradicts itself and doesn't answer the questions we think it should. Instead, she turns to Jewish midrash and invites us to see the Bible as the start of conversations instead of a door-slamming, absolutist end to them.

Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again will be a book I turn to again and again. Evans writes with passion and reverence for the Scripture and shows us how to hold the tension of a holy, timeless book written in a specific place and time by specific people. We are a part of an ongoing story of faith--the first few chapters are captured within the pages of the Bible to teach us, to comfort us, and to help us to ask good questions.

Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water
and Loving the Bible Again
By Rachel Held Evans
Thomas Nelson June 2018
240 pages
Reviewed as part of the book launch team 

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Review: The Very Worst Missionary

Jamie Wright rather unexpectedly found herself a missionary in Costa Rica with her husband and three sons. She quickly discovered that they didn't have the right training to do this job and that they had been sent to an area with many people who were doing the same work. She had been writing about their experiences to family and supporters back home. But as she became more lonely, disheartened, and worried that they might be doing more harm than good, she started writing the truth. When she was dubbed "The Very Worst Missionary" by a supporter withdrawing their contribution, she agreed and wondered if the worst missionary is the one presenting a perfect picture while falling apart on the inside or the one who admits that they are a mess and need grace just like everyone else.

Wright starts off her book with an apology, recognizing that her story and the ways she tells it are probably not what you expect. Snark and swearing are not always welcome in books about faith, but she wields both throughout The Very Worst Missionary. She begins by explaining their family's journey to faith and how they felt like they had found a home in their local church. But it wasn't long before Jamie noticed a disparity between what Jesus said and what the people in her congregation did. In spite of her questions, she and her husband Steve took their youth group on a short missions trip to Costa Rica and felt like it might be the perfect life for an adventurous family who loved Jesus.

Jamie's life and work in Costa Rica are nothing like she expected and she realized that her family might be hurting the very people they wanted to help. This is not a book that wraps up nicely in a bow. Wright says early on that she still struggles in her forties with many of the things that she struggled with as a teenager who wandered a college campus in a biker jacket at fifteen. In part, this may be what was frustrating to me. She does an excellent job of articulating the things that are wrong with the way that the American Christian church sends missionaries out into the world. But after pointing out the problems, she doesn't offer a solution. Maybe I am putting too much on one person but I want to know what we should be doing, not just the things we as the church do terribly wrong. However, if you see some problems with the concept of modern missions, Jamie Wright is right there with you. Even if she doesn't have the answers, she has some really funny stories to keep you company along the way.

The Very Worst Missionary
A Memoir or Whatever
By Jamie Wright
Convergent Books April 2018
230 pages
Read via Netgalley

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Review: The Map of Salt and Stars

The summer of 2011 is one of great change for Nour. Her father has died from cancer, and her mother decides to move the family back home to Syria. Nour's older sisters quickly fall back into the rhythm of life in Homs, but Nour has never lived in Syria and finds it hard to adjust. Their neighborhood turns into a warzone before their eyes and when a shell destroys their house, they are forced to flee across borders. As Nour and her family travel, she remembers a tale that her father told her again and again: the story of Rawiya, the girl who dreamed of seeing the world and left everything she knew to go on incredible adventures. The two girls take the same journey, hundreds of years apart, fighting for their families and a place to call home.

The Map of Salt and Stars is a book that effortlessly spans age ranges--I thought it was compelling and beautiful, but can just as easily see giving it to a teen or mature middle-grade student to read. The writing in this novel is utterly unique because Nour has synaesthesia and experiences the world a bit differently than most. Joukhadar subtly reminds readers of the beauty of story and art and nature through our heroine's experiences.

The two narratives work wonderfully here--an entire novel could have been written about Rawiya or Nour but they add new layers to each other's stories. There is a beautiful juxtaposition between the magic of Rawiya's tale as she disguises herself as a boy and fights human and magical enemies and  the devastating reality that Nour's family might not all make it to safety.

The Map of Salt and Stars is a truly beautiful debut novel that I will be talking about for a long time.

The Map of Salt and Stars
By Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar
Touchstone May 2018
368 pages
Read via Netgalley