Friday, October 22, 2021

Review: The King of Infinite Space

Jackson Dane has died and turned his son Benjamin's world upside down. Ben's mother has remarried, he's seeing his lost love Lia in his dreams again, he's not sure who he can count on, and no one knows what will happen to the theatre empire his father built. His best friend Horatio comes to help, and the two start to wonder if Ben's father actually committed suicide. Lia is working at the Three Sisters' Floral Boutique and starting to suspect that there may be something strange about her employers. None of them can predict what will happen at the theatre's annual gala, as they discover truths about themselves and what really happened to Jackson Dane. 

If you know your Shakespeare, you recognized right away that The King of Infinite Space is a retelling of Hamlet. Trying to bring a new spin to a beloved Shakespearean play is a tricky endeavor, but Lyndsay Faye rises to the occasion (as she usually does). Instead of just working with one play, she pulls in characters and elements from multiple Shakespearean tales. This story is imbued with all the darkness and longing of the original work, but it is still accessible to people who have never seen the play. 

The reader gets to experience multiple points of view, as readers hear from Lia (Ophelia), Benjamin, and Horatio. Each of these characters is given new depth and angles. Ben is a philosophy student who is equally charming and manic as he wonders about the purpose of life and love. Horatio, a political science professor, is an anchor and balance for Ben's swings. Lia is an artist, who is trying to decide just how much she wants to depend on her relationship with Ben. 

Lyndsay Faye writes beautifully; her descriptions both bring New York City and the New World's Stage Theatre to vivid life. You can't help but root for and care for these characters, even as they make decisions that will definitely end badly. The King of Infinite Space is a book for anyone who loves Hamlet, anyone who loves a mystery (and yes, there are twists even for those who know the play well), and for anyone who loves a good story about the tragedies and yearnings of life. 

The King of Infinite Space
By Lyndsay Faye
G.P. Putnam's Sons August 2021
381 pages
Read via Netgalley

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Nonfiction Mini Reviews: It's Not Your Turn and Share Your Stuff

There are some seasons of life when it seems everyone other than you is finding success. And you? You are still waiting for that phone call, that breakthrough, or that promotion. In It's Not Your Turn, Heather Thompson Day teaches us that time spent waiting does not have to be time wasted. This author is not talking about waiting hypothetically; she shares times in her own life when she was the one waiting. 

It's hard to see what is happening in our lives with clarity because we have so much access to the curated version of everyone else's lives. God wants to change our hearts and our circumstances, but that only happens when we remove ourselves from the competition no one else knew was happening. Alongside stories from her own life, Day reminds us that not getting our breakthrough right away might just mean we aren't ready yet--we need more time or experience or insight than we have right now. Trials and waiting are good, even holy, work. 

The difficulty of writing a book like this is that it is hard to give one-size-fits-all advice on life. Some parts of this book feel like a Christian living book, while others are closer to pop psychology. In some chapters, Day urges readers to be content with the small things and then encourages them to network and expand in other chapters. But I think this book will be helpful for some people. Day does a good job of reminding us that God is still in charge and we can grow and be blessed in the process of waiting for the next breakthrough. 

It's Not Your Turn
What to Do While You're Waiting for Your Breakthrough 
By Heather Thompson Day
IVP June 2021
216 pages
Read via Netgalley 

When you are a child, friendships are easy. You walk up to the other child waiting to use the slide or hang their backpack in their cubby and ask if they want to be friends. Then you run off to play blocks together and all is well. But for grownups, it can be a bit more challenging. Laura Tremaine had moved from Oklahoma to Los Angeles and was searching for real friends. She started by writing a blog and confessing the truth of her life as a new mom. Sharing online led to sharing in person, and Tremaine stumbled upon a magic formula for building relationships--ask good questions, listen well, and share your own stuff first. 

Laura Tremaine provides readers with ten questions to help their relationships go from casual to deep. She shares her own answers to those questions about who she is, what she is afraid of, what broke her, and who taught her how to be. Tremaine is very open about her own successes and struggles, and this book truly reads like a friend telling you stories about their life.

This book is part memoir and part guidebook, as Tremaine transitions to a discussion at the end of each chapter by providing readers with things to discuss with their friends. Share Your Stuff could be a valuable guide for the person looking to deepen their friendships.

Share Your Stuff. I'll Go First.
10 Questions to Take Your Friendships to the Next Level
By Laura Tremaine
Zondervan February 2021
224 pages
Read via Netgalley

Monday, October 18, 2021

Review: No Cure for Being Human

We live in a culture that promises that we can control our lives--we can get that dream job, lose those pesky ten pounds, and find love if we just follow certain steps. But of course, nothing is certain. Kate Bowler was 35 years old when she was told she had stage four colon cancer and just a fourteen percent chance of living for the next two years. Like the professor and scholar that she is, she set off to figure out how to live when life is precious but not guaranteed.

This is Kate's second book about her experiences with cancer (you should also read her book Everything Happens for a Reason). No Cure For Being Human focuses on her time in a clinical trial, when she got on a plane to Georgia every week to receive harsh drugs that might save her life. A large part of this narrative is Kate trying to understand what it means to be a good patient when her doctors leave her in the dark about a test result or her mother begs her to rest. 

Reading Kate Bowler's words feels like a gift each and every time because she gives us all permission to admit that we are not in control. She is brilliant, hilarious, and earnest, like when she recalls arguing with the manager of a hospital gift shop about selling books that promise she will get better. Just a few pages later, she writes about leaving the hospital and tearfully asking her dad how she will know she is living the right way in light of her limited time. 

In writing this review, I basically re-read this book and wrote down lines from every other page. This book recognizes that sometimes having faith is not enough. We need to speak out loud the reality that we are scared that we won't have enough time, that we won't accomplish everything we hoped to, that our children or friends won't know how much we loved them. While most of us are not wondering if we will see next year, the reality is that time is finite for all of us. "No matter how carefully we schedule our days, master our emotions, and try to wring our best life now from our better selves, we cannot solve the problem of finitude. We will always want more." If we focus on this truth instead of the catchy slogans about living our best life, will we actually see what is important? Kate Bowler (and I) think we just might. 

No Cure for Being Human
(And Other Truths I Needed to Hear)
By Kate Bowler
Random House September 2021
224 pages
Read via Netgalley 

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Review: Cloud Cuckoo Land

Throughout time, an unlikely group of people are united by their interest in a single text: an ancient Greek tale about a shepherd named Aethon who turns into different creatures and travels to a city in the clouds. In the future, a young woman is all alone on a spaceship and painstakingly recording the tale of Aethon. In 2020, an elderly man prepares to put on a play of Aethon's adventures with a group of children, unaware of the danger waiting on the lower level of the library. And in the 15th century, a young girl finds comfort in the tale of Aethon as the city of Constantinople is under siege. In Cloud Cuckoo Land, Anthony Doerr carefully weaves these lives together to remind us all about the importance of story and how we are all connected.

Anthony Doerr found great acclaim in 2014 with his book All the Light We Cannot See. If you enjoyed that book, you will find multiple points of view, a sweeping epic, and beautiful writing in Cloud Cuckoo Land too. In fact, his newest book is even more sweeping with five storylines (plus the text about Aethon) that will take you across centuries and countries. 

As a reader, your tolerance for epics may vary. I found this book to be a very engaging read, but I also thought it was a bit long and too neatly wrapped up. Doerr is trying to say some very specific things here, but I wonder if it would have been even more powerful if there were fewer perspectives and some things were left unresolved.  

Cloud Cuckoo Land is not a casual reading experience. At almost 700 pages, a reader has to commit to this journey with these characters and trust that Doerr will carry them through it. But if you can do that, it's worthwhile to experience this love letter to stories that asks why we keep stories alive and why that matters.

Cloud Cuckoo Land
By Anthony Doerr
Scribner September 2021
656 pages
Read via Netgalley

Thursday, February 11, 2021

How Then Shall We Live? Mini Reviews of Books About Life and Faith

D. L. Mayfield is not writing to make anyone comfortable, even herself. As she got to know her neighbors, who were mostly refugees, she realized that her belief that God rewarded people who followed the rules was not true for these people who had been through so much. In The Myth of the American Dream, she calls Christians out for confusing the work of our faith with our striving for affluence, autonomy, safety, and power. 

When she taught English to students who had recently arrived to the United States, she realized that a bag of donated clothes or a grammar worksheet would not fix the trauma and oppression that these people had experienced. Mayfield challenges her readers to look beyond these momentary transactions and ponder what it looks like to be a good neighbor, to realize that we are not flourishing when our neighbors are suffering. Our good intentions are not enough in the face of policies like redlining, gentrification, and prejudice in hiring that keep people from owning a home or earning the kind of income that we do. "Love is a concrete way of living in the world that prioritizes others, and other's people's children, over our own." The Myth of the American Dream asks us to open our eyes to more; it is a book that will convict you to rethink what you ask from God and change how you live as a good neighbor to the people around you.

The Myth of the American Dream:
Reflections on Affluence, Autonomy, Safety, and Power
By D.L Mayfield
IVP May 2020
192 pages
Read via Netgalley

Sister Helen Prejean is perhaps best known as the "Death Penalty Abolitionist Nun," especially after her bestselling book Dead Man Walking. She fights for the dignity of those in prison, and works towards a day when the government will not execute any people, regardless of their crimes. But Sister Helen was not always on fire for justice. As a young woman, she was a nun at St. Joseph Parish, where she was surrounded by other white, middle-class people in the church and the school where she teaches. Her life is generally comfortable, until she has a moment of epiphany--what would it be like to so inspired by the life and teachings of Jesus that you were willing to be ridiculed, to go to prison, to lose everything? 

Dead Man Walking is Prejean's story of protesting the death penalty, but River of Fire reveals how she got there. It gives a unique perspective on the changes within the Catholic Church during the second half of the 20th century, as well as Sister Helen's own journey from someone who focused on the spiritual to someone who focused on people who are suffering on earth. This book is easy to read because, as it turns out, nuns aren't that different from you and me. They have doubts, make mistakes, and struggle in their relationships with God and with other people.

River of Fire:
My Spiritual Journey
By Sister Helen Prejean
Random House August 2019
294 pages
Read via Netgalley 

Friday, January 29, 2021

Review: The Dearly Beloved

Charles, Lily, James, and Nan are a dynamic quartet. The two men are ministers at the Third Presbyterian Church. They approach their faith very differently, but each man balances the other at work and in life. Their wives are very different as well--Lily does not believe in God at all after the death of her parents while Nan grew up in the church and loves being a part of a congregation. The four of them must work together to guide their church and each other through the tumult and changes of the mid-20th century. 

The Dearly Beloved is a beautiful story about a lifetime of faith. It's easy to put religious people in one of two camps--either they are devout, perfect people who live quiet lives or they are hypocrites who think themselves above the virtues they espouse. Instead, these characters are real people. They have doubts and challenges, and sometimes find it difficult to interact with people who believe the same things they do. But they are people who keep trying--they show up again for their spouse, their friends, their children, and their church.

This is a life novel--there are no explosions or intrigue; instead, readers get to peek into the everyday moments of a couple having an argument, a pastor having a crisis of faith, and a mother wondering what her child will grow up to be. It's a story about truly knowing people, and walking alongside them as they go through the highs and lows of life. As someone who is married to a minister, I appreciated the kindness with which Cara Wall wrote about the oftentimes unique situations ministers and their families experience. She is a beautiful, incisive writer and I will eagerly read whatever she writes next.

The Dearly Beloved
By Cara Wall
Simon and Schuster August 2019
353 pages
Read via Netgalley

Friday, January 22, 2021

Sci-Fi Mini Reviews: Recursion and This Is How You Lose The Time War

Scientist Helena Smith believes that memories are crucial. In fact, she is working on a new technology that would allow people to preserve their most cherished memories forever. But police officer Barry Sutton sees the danger of memories, especially when he encounters a woman suffering from False Memory Syndrome. This woman remembers an entire life that no one else believes is true, and her inability to align her memories with that of the world around her drives her to suicide. Barry and Helena team up to find out how and why memories are changing. But how can they find a solution when they can't trust their own memories?

Blake Crouch is one of the most interesting writers working in science fiction today. His books consistently make me think about the limits and ethics of technology and when I finish one of his stories, I always want to discuss it with someone. What could be more human or more emotional than a book about keeping our memories? Recursion is a book for sci-fi/speculative fiction readers, mystery readers, and anyone who loves a great story. 

By Blake Crouch
Crown Publishing June 2019
324 pages
Read via Netgalley

It's just another mission, just another world laid to waste during war. But one thing is different--Agent Red finds a letter among the ashes that tells her to burn it before reading. Blue and Red, on opposite sides of the battlefield, find themselves embarking on an unlikely correspondence. Each is committed to victory for their own side. But as they write to each other, it's unclear which is more dangerous--that their correspondence will be discovered and they will be executed as traitors, or that their relationship will grow beyond the confines of a letter. 

This Is How You Lose The Time War was one of the most heralded sci-fi stories of 2019, winning both the Hugo and Nebula awards. Each author writes from the vantage of one character: Blue, whose world is one of forests and bacteria, and Red, who fights for a world of clockwork devices and bombs. Their relationship begins as a gleeful taunt, a way to proclaim victory over a worthy opponent. But the two agents begin to care for each other, knowing they cannot win the war and save the one they love. My complaint is that we get so little time with these characters before we jump to the other side, another perspective, another country, another strand in time. There is no question that this book is an impressive feat but the problem is always time--I wanted more time to spend with Red and Blue and see how their relationship grew and where they went next. 

This Is How You Lose The Time War
By Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
Saga Press July 2019
209 pages
Read via Netgalley