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

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Review: The Displaced

If you watch the news for longer than five minutes, you will likely hear someone yell about refugees and what we should (or shouldn't) be doing about the thousands of people who are displaced from their homes. It's easy to lump everyone who flees dangerous circumstances together, but their stories are as different as the refugees themselves. In The Displaced, Viet Thanh Nguyen has collected the experiences of twenty people.

In "Last, First, Middle," Joseph Azam struggles with his choice to leave behind the name his grandfather gave him. Fatima Bhutto recounts her experience with a simulation of crossing the Mexican border in "Flesh and Sand," and Reyna Grande reveals that the trauma of a separated family never goes away in "The Parent Who Stays." Marina Lewycka, who has spent most of her life in England, finds that she is no longer at home in a country where people are harassed in the streets just for looking foreign in "Refugees and Exiles."

The stories in this collection are excellent and there are such different experiences and writing styles between the covers of this book. I do believe that reading about the experiences of people from all countries and situations is crucial, but I wonder if the people who feel empathy for refugees and want to do something to help are already the ones who would read this collection. If words do have the power to change minds and hearts and convince us to see others as people, The Displaced is an excellent place to start.

Note: This advanced copy only included ten of the twenty pieces. All royalties from the sale of this book will go to the International Rescue Committee.


The Displaced:
Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives
Edited by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Abrams Press April 2018
192 pages
Read via Netgalley

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Review: Only Human (Themis Files #3)

When Rose Franklin was a child, she fell into the hand of an iron giant. Years later, she has been on unbelievable adventures and discovered that aliens exist. Rose and her friends have spent a decade on an alien planet, but that won't be the most difficult thing. When they return to Earth, they find that new divisions have formed and the planet is on the brink of war. The existence of aliens might not matter after all; humanity is about to destroy itself.

This series succeeds at doing what the best sci-fi stories can--making us think about humanity because of a story about aliens. When Rose, Vincent, and Eva return to Earth, they expect to find a planet that has changed because we know we are not alone in the universe. But instead of uniting people, it has turned them against each other. They use the alien robots to take land and resources and fight other nations. Internment camps have sprung up across the world as everyone turns on their neighbor with the suspicion that they might have alien DNA. Our heroes have to decide which side they are on and what they are willing to fight for.

Sylvain Neuvel has written a great trilogy where each book takes the story in new directions. Each one is told through interviews and recording, but the characters are still very vivid. In fact, I found myself missing a few of them who aren't in this final book. The Themis Files books make the existence of alien races and giant metal robots seem entirely possible and is a wonderful addition to the canon of science fiction.

Only Human
Themis Files #3
By Sylvain Neuvel
Del Rey May 2018
336 pages
Read via Netgalley