Jul 31, 2017

July Book Reviews



Miss Jane by Brad Watson ★★★★
Inspired by the life of his great-aunt, Watson writes about a woman born in the early 1900s who was born with a genital defect that  caused incontinence and the reality that she could never be sexually intimate --- and consequently most likely would never marry. Through these difficult circumstances, Jane still managed to be a curious, introspective, and mesmerizing child and later on, woman. Told from the perspective of Jane as well as supporting characters such as her parents, sister, and the country doctor who was there when she was born and continued her care through her life, Jane's story flows with grace because of Watson's ethereal prose. The way he describes the different seasons and life on the farm, for instance, was smooth like butter and just so lovely. There are a few things that bothered me a little, though. There was a lot of alcohol use in one of the characters in particular that was really sad to read about and another character leaned heavily on laudanum (opium with alcohol) to deal with hard circumstances and dissapointments. In addition, there was an undertone of sensuality that was understandable since Jane struggled to understand her own sexuality as she was growing into a young woman. She was a curious child, and realizing she'd never experience sex,  as a young girl she snuck under a window outside a house to watch a couple be intimate. It's developmentally appropriate for kids to be curious and wonder, and it made sense that Watson expressed Jane's specific curiosity but it was a little squeamish still. There's also a chapter where the author is describing different plants that have components or appearances that look like genitalia as well as descriptions of animals mating. Though written as a way to further express Jane's self-education of sexuality (especially since her parents were not wanting to talk about her condition or explain why she was different), it was definitely more sensual  than I am comfortable with reading. Thankfully the writing and plot itself, showcasing the delicate as well as strong-willed nature of Jane, surpassed the less enjoyable bits.

Reminded me of: Bold, brave women looking back at their painful past:   A Piece of the World by Christine Baker Kline and Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry (which I loved the most from these three)


Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan (audiobook)★★★★
A wild, nerdy, mysterious ride! Clay Jannon is a twenty-something living in San Fransisco when he stumbles upon a night-shift job at a 24-hour bookstore that he soon finds out is not your typical bookstore.  Quirky, somewhat frazzled late-night customers that are part of a secret society of readers become the impetus for uncovering the hidden truth about the bookstore and its owner, Mr. Penumbra. Fast-paced, hilariously narrated from Clay's  web design-cum-mysterious-bookstore-employee perspective, Clay enlists the help of his fellow millennial friends (including a girl  he's crushing on from Google and an entrepreneur best friend who's company specializes in making breasts appear realistic in video games) when he believes the bookstore and the quirky and lovable Mr. P are in danger. The audiobook narrator was awesome and it was a fun book to listen to after a slew of so-so audiobooks last month. FYI: There are a few brief sensual scenes.


A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table by Molly Wizenberg ★★★★
A delightful, thoughtfully written foodie memoir about the food the surrounded some of Wizenberg's most beloved as well as heartbreaking life events, shared in a non-sequential fashion. This is no spoiler since its imparted on the dust jacket: Molly's dad, with whom she had a very close bond, passed away in her early adulthood. Several years later, she met a handsome guy through her foodie blog Orangette and fell in love, later opening up a pizzeria together in Seattle (and a follow-up memoir about how that happened with the same name), Delancey. The essays are dominated by these two beloved men in her life, and rightfully so. Her writing is fresh and her recipes are mouth-watering. Each food-centered essay is coupled with a recipe. A few sounded odd, but she swears by them (including arugula salad with pistachios and chocolate,  pickled grapes with cinnamon and black pepper, and vanilla-black pepper ice cream).

Reminds me of: Other Paris-inspired foodie memoirs I loved such as Lunch in Paris by Elizabeth Bard and The Sharper the Knife The Less You Cry by Kathleen Flinn.


As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride by Cary Elwes with Joe Layden  (audiobook) ★★★★
A behind-the-scene look at the making of the iconic movie, from hilarious hijinks to the close bond that connected the cast and crew. I chose to listen to the audiobook, which was narrated by Cary Elwes (who played Westley in the movie) along with other cast and crew from the movie, including Robin Wright (Princess Buttercup), Wallace Shawn (Vizzini), Billy Crystal (Miracle Max), and Christopher Guest (Count Rugen), which made it extra fun to hear their perspectives. It was written shortly after the twenty-five year anniversary of the movie's debut. The stories about Andre the Giant were hilarious and sometimes almost unbelievable. The man could eat and drink like no other!  Cary Elwes seemed really humble about the pleasure of playing one of the main characters and just seemed like an overall awesome guy, rather than a stuck-up movie star. I loved it and would definitely recommend it to anyone who has seen and enjoyed the movie and likes to know what went on during the making of the movie.  I really want to read the original book by William Goldman now!

Reminds me of: Seinfelia, which is a behind-the-scenes look at the infamous "Show About Nothing"


In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri; translated by Ann Goldstein (audiobook)
Jhumpha, who many may recognize as author of bestselling novels like The Namesake and The Lowland,  loved the Italian language and culture ever since first stepping foot on Italian soil during a college trip with her sister. She tried learning the language while living in the NYC. In 2012, she decided to fully immerse herself in this endeavor by moving to Rome with her family "because in the end to learn a language, to feel connected to it, you have to have a dialogue, however childlike, however imperfect." Eventually, she began to write and read solely in Italian, which is an extremely impressive feat. She doesn't even translate her books into English, but rather, has someone else do it so she can continue to think creatively in Italian. A memoir about this season of her self-proclaimed exile from the English language and her long-term wrestling with the Italian language, this is an eloquent, gorgeously written (and far too short) look inside this brilliant woman. There were so many gems about language as a whole that I wish I had a physical copy to underline, but since I was listening to the audiobook (narrated by her), I could only rewind and listen to it again. (Here is a Goodreads collection of some quotes). This is definitely a book I will add to my personal library and I look forward to reading more by her!


The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katerina Bivald (audiobook) ★★
Sara is a bookish Swedish gal who travels to Broken Wheel, Iowa to meet her pen-pal and fellow book-loving pal, Amy for a vacation they both assume will include lots of reading. Except on the day she arrives, she finds out Amy has just passed away and her funeral was just minutes prior to her arrival. (And this is not a spoiler since it's on the dust jacket as well as first chapter.) The townspeople of this small, peculiar town adopt Sara with hospitality, kindness, and friendship and she soon desires to repay them, so what does she do? She starts a non-profit bookstore in honor of Amy. When her time in America draws to a close, the townspeople think of a drastic, sketchy plan to keep her there, which uncovers hidden feelings, secrets, and motives. Several interesting sub-plots with supporting characters wrap around Sara's story. An overall entertaining story with plenty of literary references and bookish fun. But there were some sensual themes and scenes as well as multiple anti-Christian attitudes that I wasn't fond of, and consequently kept me from loving the book.

Reminds me of: Other books about book-lovers such as The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society  and the memoir about a couple who opened a used bookshop in a small town, The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap (I LOVED both!)


Songs of Willow Frost by Jamie Ford ★★
After reading Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet several years ago, I knew I wanted to read more by Ford and bought this book when I found it at Dollar Tree. The plot itself was somewhat predictable and overall depressing, which I wasn't too surprised with since this was set during the Great Depression. William Eng is a twelve-year-old boy living in an orphanage in Seattle. One day he is captivated by the beautiful actress Willow Frost on the silver screen who he is convinced is his long-lost mother. Desperate for answers about his past, he finds they are a lot more complicated than he'd ever imagined. Just as in Hotel on the Corner, I was intrigued by the Seattle history, especially since I lived there for several years and recognized a lot of the landmarks mentioned through the stories. In addition, I hadn't read a book set in the Great Depression since The Grapes of Wrath in high school, so I enjoyed learning more about this dark time in American history through historical fiction. But the writing itself had much to be desired. Unfortunately, I wasn't as smitten with this Ford book because of the plethora of cliché phrases, too much telling rather than showing ("she felt as if..."), and somewhat corny phrases ("somehow life had become a math problem and William was horrible at math").


Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf (audiobook) ★★
A elderly widowed woman arrives with an unusual proposal for her likewise elderly widowed neighbor, Lewis: to sleep in her bed at nighttime to help drive away the loneliness. She assures him its not about sex: "I'm talking about getting through the night, she says. And lying in bed, companionably. Lying down in bed together and you staying the night. The nights are the worst. Don't you think?" Somewhat awkward at first, Lewis begins coming over and a cherished friendship develops. They had vaguely known each other before this arrangement and as they spend nights together, they have conversations about their lives, specifically their marriages. Their honest reflections about their failures, regrets, as well as their relationships with their adult children link them closely.  I would have preferred a bit more development to their story (It was a mere 3 hours on audiobook).  It's a heartfelt yet melancholy story about new beginnings in the last chapter of life.


Creative Counterpart: Becoming the Woman, Wife, and Mother You Have Longed To Be by Linda Dillow ★★★★
I loved Dillow's Calm My Anxious Heart as well as the phenomenal work her and Dr. Juli Slattery do with their ministry Authentic Intimacy so I had been looking forward to reading this book for about two years. Dillow uses Biblical references such as the Proverbs 31 woman, the love poetry of Song of Solomon, as well as Paul's teachings on marriage to the Ephesian church to study the "beautiful blueprint" of "God's game plan" for marriage. Chapters focus on different aspects of becoming a "creative counterpart" as a wife with topics including: practical ways to prioritize intentional time with the Lord, your spouse, children, others, yourself, and your home; being our husband's greatest fan; accepting his imperfections and not trying to be his personal Holy Spirit; being a consistent responder rather than being socially/emotionally labile; being a creative lover; seeing your spouse as your beloved and lover. the Bible study at the back of the book helped me dive deeper into Scriptural references as well as provided space for me to wrestle with these topics.

Reminds me of: Let Me Be A Woman by Elisabeth Elliot (which I loved)


The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate (audiobook) ★★★★
Ivan is a silverback gorilla who was raised by a human named Mac and now lives at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade along with Stella the aging elephant where paying customers to gawk at in their constrained living quarters  (Ivan refers to them as "domains"). He doesn't remember or miss much about his former life in the jungle until a new resident arrives, Ruby the baby elephant who is defiant with Mac and misses her family, whom she was violently separated from recently. He makes a promise to take care of her and uses his passion for art to help him with this cause. Told in first person perspective of a gorilla (which was highly entertaining), this is a sweet, humorous, as well as poignant tale about friendship, art, animal captivity, and courage. Appropriate for middle-grade kids but relevant for adults as well, this story was a delight. The narrator of the audiobook was awesome as well. 

Reminds me of: Tarzan


A Layman Looks at the Lord's Prayer by W. Phillip Keller ★★★★

W. Phillip Keller's most known book, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, is one of my favorite books. So I was thrilled to see that Moody Publishers Blogger Review Program had a book by the author available. I read the first with Greg in the first months of dating long-distance. We'd read separately and then discuss our thoughts during our FaceTime dates. I asked him last month if he was interested in reading this new one together. I use "new" loosely, since this book was originally published in 1976 and only re-published recently (with a sleek new cover design). Greg said yes, and I proceeded to read aloud a chapter at a time before heading to bed, discussing our thoughts afterwards. The slim book is divided into twelve chapters, each focusing in detail on a phrase of the Matthew 6:9-13 passage of the Lord's Prayer. God's loving nature as our Heavenly Father was mentioned as he unloaded the two-word phrase "Our Father", heaven was explored in the chapter "Which Art In Heaven",  his holiness was discussed in "Hallowed Be Thy Name", and so on. Keller has a keen grasp on Scriptures and a notable skill at exploring familiar passages of Scripture (Psalms 23 and The Lord's Prayer) in a way that unearths fresh insight and deeper meaning that I was unable to find on my own. Keller looks at this prayer as more than a guide to prayer but a guide to Christian living and seeing God the Father more clearly. Keller's own words express deep gratitude for this passage of Scripture:
"There is inherent in this prayer all the strength and compassion of our Father in heaven. There moves through it a beauty and serenity which no mortal man can fully explain. It reassures our hearts, strengthens our resolve, and leads us into personal contact with God, our Father ... It is a most precious passage."
Disclaimer: I received this book for free from Moody Publishers Blogger Review Program in exchange for an honest review, which I have provided here. 


My Great Big God by Andy Holmes; illustrated by Marta Alvarez Miguens ★★★★
An endearingly written Bible storybook about how big God is, told in age-appropriate, adorable rhyming verses and simple yet encouraging reminders of His character. The colorful and detailed illustrations add on to the stories to bring them to life for little ones. Talking about the big-ness of God can easily turn into a somewhat overwhelming rather than comforting doctrine if it is not balanced with the big, personal love of God as well. God is not a ginormous, distant diety waiting to point his lighting rods at your mistakes, but rather a ginormous God with a ginormous heart for His people. The twenty Bible stories each focus on a takeaway statement that reminds children they are loved by this big God. In A Great  Big World, the reader is reminded that our "great, big God" (as He is described in each story), made everything (including the "great big bears and puppy dogs / kittens, bunnies, and hopping frogs"). In the story of Moses and the exodus from Egypt, the takeaway is that "my great big God saves the day!" while the Ten Commandments reminds us "my great big God guides me!" When the crucifixion story is told, the verses repeat the word free to accentuate that we have freedom in Christ:
My great big God sent ...
Jesus to die on Calvary
To set all of His people free:
Free from sinful deeds and thoughts,
 Free to do what Jesus taught  
Free to love, obey, forgive,
Free to deeply, fully live.
Jesus died and rose again
To give new life and forgive sin! 
This book is a great addition to other Bible storybooks for young children as well as truth-filled reminders for parents, siblings, Sunday school teachers, or grandparents who read them along with the children.

Disclaimer: I received this book for free from BookLook Bloggers in exchange for an honest review.    

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Books I Stopped in July

The Paris Architect 
The writing wasn't the best, far too many cuss words and sex scenes, and I just kept comparing it to other better WWII books, so it was time to stop once I got halfway and decided it was time to stop.

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Currently Reading

On Writing by Stephen King

Make It Happen by Lara Casey

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

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Here are Amazon links if you're interested in more info about specific books. If you decide to purchase one using a link below, I receive a small compensation at no extra cost to you -- which goes to my book-buying fund, naturally :)


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Elle Alice