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. 

Recursion
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 

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Women on the Run: Everything Here is Under Control and Boop & Eve's Road Trip

Amanda doesn't know where to turn. She is exhausted as a new mother and feels unsupported by her partner Gabe. In desperation, she straps baby Jack into his car seat and drives from Queens back to her hometown in Ohio. She's hoping to find solace and guidance from her childhood best friend, Carrie. Their lives took very different paths after high school, but Carrie seems to know what do as a mother, as a business owner, and as a woman making her way in the world. Amanda's unexpected arrival will force both women to examine what they truly believe about motherhood and friendship, and what kept them apart for all these years. 

Everything Here Is Under Control is a story of contrasts. The story is told from the present and from the past, when Amanda was newly in love and figuring out her life and Carrie was the one with a new baby and spit-up on her shirt. One of my favorite parts was witnessing the two friends realize they had no idea what the other's life was really like--Carrie remembers having no tolerance for hearing about Amanda's carefree life while she was in the trenches of motherhood, and Amanda realizes she was a complete jerk to her friend when she needed her help. There is something simmering under Amanda and Carrie's relationship that readers don't learn until the second half of the book. This new knowledge is jarring and, while it makes their dynamic make more sense, it is strange for the reader to be processing something that the characters have known all along. 

Everything Here Is Under Control
By Emily Adrian 
Blackstone Publishing July 2020
272 pages
Read via Netgalley 


Boop is concerned about her granddaughter. Eve seems perpetually unhappy, especially when her mother Justine brings up going to medical school. Boop wishes Eve could learn some gumption, and to stand up for herself. When Eve gets a cryptic message from her cousin and best friend Ally, grandmother and granddaughter decide to embark on an epic road trip to find out what is going on with Ally, and give them some time to figure out what to do with their own lives. 

I love intergenerational stories, and I was excited to find out more about the amazingly named Boop and her granddaughter. But both women suffered from an inability to speak up--Boop about her past and Eve about what she wants in the future. It seems author Mary Helen Sheriff was unsure whether she wanted to write a lighthearted road trip romp or delve into the pain of depression and unresolved family trauma, so we are left somewhere in the murky middle. 

Boop and Eve's Road Trip
By Mary Helen Sheriff
She Writes Press October 2020
268 pages
Read via Netgalley

Friday, January 8, 2021

Historical Fiction Mini Reviews: A Tender Thing and Miss Benson's Beetle

Eleanor O'Hanlon is done with her boring life in Wisconsin. When she sees an advertisement for an open call for a show in New York City, she decides to head to the big city and audition. While she is not cast in that show, her audition impresses composer Don Mannheim. He invites her to be the star of his controversial new musical "A Tender Thing." The show tells the story of a biracial couple, and 1950s audiences are furious. As tensions rise both onstage and backstage, Eleanor must decide who she wants to be as an actress and as her own person. 

Emily Neuberger's love for the theatre is evident throughout A Tender Thing. Her descriptions of singing a perfect song or being exhausted after a lengthy rehearsal are excellent. But this story succeeds and fails with Eleanor. She is unexperienced but lucky in almost every way--she miraculously lands a leading role in a Broadway musical with no training, men find her intriguing, and this is the first time she sees the difference between the treatment she receives as a white woman and the treatment her costar Charles receives as a black man. This book might be a good pick for readers who love theatre, but I sometimes found it a bit difficult to read as everything consistently works out for Eleanor.

A Tender Thing
By Emily Neuberger
G. P Putnum's Sons April 2020
320 pages
Read via Netgalley 


Things are difficult in 1950s London, and Margery Benson is just trying to keep her head down and make it through another day of teaching home economics. When students pass around a nasty caricature of her, she finally snaps. Margery leaves her job and her home to embark on a sacred quest. Ever since childhood, she has wanted to find the mythical golden beetle of New Caledonia. With the unlikely Enid Pretty as her assistant, she sets off for an adventure unlike anything she has ever experienced. 

Miss Benson's Beetle, at its heart, might be a story about finding what gives you joy. Margery has been constrained by society's rules about what a woman should do, despite never finding her place there. Enid has used her looks to make it through life, but living in the jungle with Margery allows her to discover who she wants to be and how she wants to act when her life is not dictated by men. Rachel Joyce writes these two very different women so well, and the story of their growing friendship is compelling. Unfortunately, the book is a bit long and Joyce introduces a third storyline which doesn't add anything to the story. While this is not my favorite Joyce book, I have certainly found a place in my bookish heart for Margery and Enid and their adventures.

Miss Benson's Beetle
By Rachel Joyce
Dial Press November 2020
352 pages
Read via Netgalley 

Also by Rachel Joyce:

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Mini Reviews for the Foodie: Hadley Beckett's Next Dish and Vanessa Yu's Magical Paris Tea Shop


Hadley Beckett is a celebrity chef who is known for her charming Southern personality and her delicious meals. Her competition on America's Fiercest Chef, however, is known for his temper tantrums in addition to his Michelin stars. Maxwell Cavanaugh may have the highest-rated show on the network, but they give him an ultimatum: go to rehab and learn to manage his anger, or lose his show. Maxwell seems on his way out, and Hadley's star is on the rise. When she is invited to appear on the show Renowned, she is thrilled. But there's a catch: the producers want to feature both Hadley and Max. Can the two chefs find a way to get along or will the show be a swan song for them both? 

Hadley Beckett's Next Dish is a fun romance. The two chefs want nothing to do with each other, which of course means they are destined to fall for each other. You will feel as if you are actually on the set of a cooking show, Hadley is a delightful character, and the book moves quickly. The line between charming and cheesy is not always easy to walk, but Bethany Turner does a great job of it here. If you love watching Food Network and are searching for the perfect read for your weekend, this book is for you. 

Hadley Beckett's Next Dish
By Bethany Turner
Revell May 2020
336 pages
Read via Netgalley



Vanessa has an usual ability: she can see people's futures and is compelled to tell them what she sees. She tries to avoid getting close to people since telling someone that their boyfriend will cheat or their mother will die from cancer tends to end relationships. When her over-invested family invites a matchmaker to find Vanessa's true love, she discovers that she will never find lasting love because of her gift of seeing the future. Desperate for answers, she travels to Paris to stay with her Aunt Evelyn, who also has the gift of seeing the future. Evelyn seems to have a perfect life--she is chic, owns a beautiful tea shop, and follows all the rules of being a clairvoyant. But Vanessa and Evelyn are about to discover that when it come to love and seeing the future, sometimes they have to make their own rules. 

Vanessa and her story fell a bit flat for this reader. Roselle Lim writes with the kind of easy charm that we love to see in contemporary romance, but the characters felt like archetypes. Vanessa is entirely passive within her own life, her family members aren't distinctive, and the man she meets in Paris seems almost too good to be true. However, the irresistible descriptions of amazing food in both San Francisco and Paris might be enough for the reader who loves both a tasty treat and a happy ending. 


Vanessa Yu's Magical Paris Tea Shop
By Roselle Lim
Berkley August 2020
320 pages
Read via Netgalley