Thursday, August 16, 2018

Review: Our Homesick Songs

Big Running used to be a thriving town. But the fish disappeared and one by one, families left the place that was their home. The Connor family is still there, but they have to make some major changes. Aidan and Martha work at an energy company inland for alternating months, while the other parent stays with their children Finn and Cora. The separation is hard on the entire family. Finn becomes obsessed with figuring out why the fish left and how to bring them back. Cora decorates abandoned homes like different countries until the day that she too leaves Big Running and forces the family to choose if they should leave the only home they've ever loved.

Our Homesick Songs is indeed a book about homesickness and what it means to be home. It can often be a certain place, and it is definitely certain people. The author gives us a glimpse into one such town and one such family both in 1993, when the town is slowly abandoned, and the 1970s, when Aidan and Martha meet and fall in love. It's also a story about the importance of story and music and magic in remembering our history and dreaming about our futures.

Our Homesick Songs is the perfect story to read on a hard day. It is a simple read at certain points, almost like a child's fairy tale. But in other chapters, the very adult problems of paying the bills and staying faithful to a spouse you never see take center stage. The characters go through tough times and the story does not ignore the difficulties of loving people well in an ever-changing environment, but it does leave the characters and the readers with hope. We can hope in the goodness of people and the possibility that our love for our families, our friends, and our home will be enough to pull us through the darkest of days.

Our Homesick Songs
By Emma Hooper
Simon and Schuster August 2018
336 pages
Read via Netgalley


Also by Emma Hooper: Etta and Otto and Russell and James 

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Wednesdays with David: The Great Shelby Holmes

The Story: Shelby Holmes is not your average sixth grader. She’s nine years old, barely four feet tall, and the best detective her Harlem neighborhood has ever seen—always using logic and a bit of pluck (which yes, some might call “bossiness”) to solve the toughest crimes. 

When eleven-year-old John Watson moves downstairs, Shelby finds something that’s eluded her up till now: a friend. Easy-going John isn’t sure of what to make of Shelby, but he soon finds himself her most-trusted (read: only) partner in a dog-napping case that'll take both their talents to crack. (Synopsis from Goodreads) 


Thoughts from David: The Great Shelby Holmes is a very good mystery novel. Shelby is plain incredible with the fact she can deduct almost anything. She deducted that the main character, John Watson's (Yeah, both Shelby and John's last names are spin-offs on Sherlock Holmes and John Watson) mom had served in  Afghanistan just from boxes, a medical license, and that John's mom had a limp. John may not be a genius detective like Shelby, but sometimes John sees things that Shelby might not, like things about stuff that Shelby doesn't notice, like basketball.   

All in all, The Great Shelby Holmes is an amazing book. I definitely recommend this book to anyone who likes mystery books. You'll be laughing and trying to solve the mystery with Shelby and John the whole way through!  

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Review: An Ocean of Minutes

In 1981, the world is struck by a terrible flu. Frank falls sick and there is no way he can afford the very expensive treatment. So his girlfriend Polly decides to travel to the future and work for a company called TimeRaiser. In return, they will give Frank the cure that will save his life. The couple plans to meet up in 1993, but Polly is sent to 1998 instead. She finds herself in a very unexpected world, where she is subject to the strict rules and regulations of TimeRaiser employees. When Frank doesn't show up to their rendezvous, Polly is at a loss for what to do next. She traveled across time to make sure they would be together; what will she do if they can't?

An Ocean of Minutes has been pitched as similar to Station Eleven, but I think the two books are very different. While Station Eleven skips some time, we still see people navigating the aftermath of an epidemic. Polly sees little of the aftermath, since she travels 17 years into the future and her days are restricted to the workplaces and shoddy accommodations of TimeRaiser. An Ocean of Minutes is instead a story about class and poverty and how impossible it is to "work your way" into a better life. It's about trying to find the people and places that make up your home when everything has changed.

Thea Lim has smartly given us Polly and Frank's love story in the midst of Polly's current desperation. When she doesn't know how to find him, it is that much more painful because we have seen their relationship grow and we know how much they adore each other. An Ocean of Minutes is one of those stories where you hope that your protagonist will find what she is looking for and sigh in frustration at every barrier that she encounters. But those barriers caused by individuals and bureaucracy are exactly what makes this story seem so plausible, even as they break our hearts and threaten Polly's hope for a happy ending.

An Ocean of Minutes
By Thea Lim
Touchstone July 2018
320 pages
Read via Netgalley

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Review: The Great Believers

Yale Tishman is at a turning point in his career. If he can get a group of paintings donated to his Chicago gallery, it will be his biggest success yet. But his personal life is not as hopeful--his friends are dying from AIDS and no one knows how to grieve or who will be the next to be diagnosed. He finds comfort in the unlikely friendship of his friend Nico's younger sister Fiona. Thirty years later, Fiona is desperately searching Paris for her daughter. She thought Claire was lost to a cult, but now she will do anything to reconnect with her daughter and try to make amends for the ways she failed her.

I've been intrigued by Rebecca Makkai's writing for a long time. Not every story of hers works for me, but she weaves some kind of literary magic that makes me willing to try again. With this book, she has written herself into a tough situation because every book about a group of gay friends finds itself compared to the devastating A Little Life. The wonderful news is that this book holds its own--there is a perfect balance here between a specific moment in time and the intimate details of any person's life.

Both Yale and Fiona are incredibly invested in what is happening around them, as friends, relatives, and lovers are dying from AIDS. They show how life continues in spite of loss and tragedy, because there are fights with family and you still have to make that appointment and get to work on time. But there is a specter hanging over everyday life as characters wonder if a cough is just a cough or feeling tired means that something insidious is inside your body. The costs are more than physical--there is immense pressure on the ones left behind, the ones who say goodbye over and over again and must keep the memories of their friends alive.

In my reading lately, I'm finding many good books where I am excited to keep reading, anxious to find out what happens to the characters, and invited into another time and place by careful writing. But the books that stand out for me are the ones that are just enough--the author takes us into someone's life and knows when to close the curtain and force us to go back out into the world. The Great Believers is one of those stories. I spent the perfect amount of time with Yale and Fiona and I grew to care for them. Now I am ready to leave them behind and return to my own life, prepared to be a bit kinder and pay attention a bit more because our time with the people we love is a finite gift.

The Great Believers
By Rebecca Makkai
Viking June 2018
432 pages
Read via Netgalley

Also by Rebecca Makkai: The Hundred-Year House and The Borrower

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