Book Review: Until We Reach Home

Until We Reach Home by Lynn Austin is the story of three sisters from Sweden in 1897. Their mother died, then their father committed suicide, which in that time and culture went beyond its own tragedy to be considered a disgrace to the family. An aunt and uncle move in to “help” but ended up taking over the farm. To protect her sisters from a danger which only she knows about, oldest sister Elin accepts another uncle’s invitation to come to America.

Elin is the take-charge mother hen of the group. The danger she wants to keep them from has made her wary, nervous, and sad, which irritates her sisters because they don’t know what’s behind it.

Kirsten is the free-spirited, adventurous, independent middle child. She doesn’t want to move to America at first, but when she learns that her relationship with a young man will never advance because of her father’s disgrace, she breaks up with him and wants to leave.

Sophia is the shy youngest, attached to the farm and thoroughly unwilling to go to America. She often visits her mother’s grave and wants to stay near it. But she doesn’t want to be separated from her sisters, either.

The trip via trains, ferries, and finally a ship, is harrowing, especially in the crowded conditions of steerage. Seasickness hits them all, and then a mysterious disease breaks out. Then their arrival is not what they had anticipated when two of them are detained at Ellis Island and even when they finally get to their aunt and uncle’s home. Almost entirely on their own, they have to scramble to find work and a place to live.

Elin and Kirsten both carry weighty secrets from their past. When Sophia is faced with the one thing she fears most, she rediscovers the faith of her mother.

Will they all find release from their burdens? Will life always be a hardscrabble struggle, or will they ever find their new start in this new land? Will they ever find a true home?

My thoughts:

New beginnings are almost never easy, even when they’re excitedly anticipated. But starting over under the conditions that they did and at the time they did made it all the harder. So many immigrants came from hard conditions to make a better life and faced so many hardships both in travel and then supporting themselves once they got here. Like the pioneers, persevering through hardships made hardy stock of them – or maybe they were to begin with. This book was quite enlightening, and I enjoyed it very much. As one character says, “Life with God is often very difficult. But life without Him is unendurable.”

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Books You Loved)

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Book Review: A Proper Pursuit

Proper Pursuit A Proper Pursuit by Lynn Austin takes place in Illinois in the late 1800s, where 20-year-old Violet Rose Hayes, recent graduate from Madame Beauchamps’ School for Young Ladies, learns that her father plans to remarry. She is confused, because she has been told for years that her mother has been ill in a sanitarium all this time. Her father had to confess that, no, she actually left the family and divorced him a long time ago, but he thought it would be easier for Violet to think that she was sick.

Upset and angry, Violet asks if she can visit her grandmother in Chicago, with whom the family has not had much contact in years. Her father reluctantly agrees, but what he doesn’t know is that Violet is planning to secretly look for her mother at the last address she had for her.

Violet’s grandmother and aunts are a variety of sisters. Her grandmother is a vibrant, active Christian, working among the poor in inner city Chicago. Her Aunt Matt supports women’s suffrage and attends meetings and protests in that cause. Her aunt Agnes married into elite society and takes Violet calling, hoping to snag a rich husband for her. Her aunt Bertie is living in the past, believing that her husband is away fighting in the Civil War and wondering why she hasn’t heard from him in so long. But unfortunately, none of them will discuss her mother with her, feeling it is her father’s place to do so. So Violet goes sleuthing on her own.

This coming-of-age novel reflects on the pathways open to women. Violet accompanies her grandmother on several of her missions, begins to move out of her self-centered viewpoint to see the needs of others, yet is repulsed by the sights, sounds, and especially smells of poverty.  She loves her aunt Agnes’s rich lifestyle, but over time begins to feel its shallowness. She can see many of the points her Aunt Matt makes about the need for women’s votes and voices, but carrying placards in public isn’t her style. Each of the women has her flaws, but also her strengths: in some ways they each are striving for the same goals, though in different ways. Violet can learn from each of them, yet she has to find her own way, though she isn’t sure what that is at first.

And on top of everything else, her father and two of her aunts have someone they want her to marry, all very different from each other and none of them just right.

It’s written from Violet’s point of view, which is sometimes immature, but other times quite funny.

If the art of conversation was like a graceful tennis match, then I had lost track of the ball, the racket, and the score. Worse, I felt as though I had become entangled in the net.

I delivered a threat without raising my voice. Madame Beauchamps would have approved.

I had never washed a dirty dish in my life, and I had no desire to disturb my record.

Mary rummaged through the picnic basket as if searching for her ticket out of this conversation.

My thoughts:

I thought the initial premise that Violet would believe that her mother was ill and hadn’t communicated with them for eleven years was a bit weak, even for someone as naive as Violet. And I thought Violet was a bit melodramatic, but chalked that up to her age – though I would think it characteristic of a younger teenager rather than a twenty-year-old. But later in the story another explanation comes up for that. There were a couple of theological points that made me wince just a little bit, but, again, I think that’s owing to Violet’s initial ignorance of such things.

But otherwise, I enjoyed the story and Violet’s growth very much as she finds out about herself, the world in general, and God, and contemplates what He would have her do.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Carole‘s Books You Loved, Literary Musing Monday)

 

 

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Book Review: June Bug

june-bug June Bug by Chris Fabry caught my eye both because I have enjoyed others of his books, plus this one was said to be based on Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, one of my top two all-time favorite novels.

It begins with 9 year old June traveling around the country with her father,  John Johnson, in an old RV. It’s the only life she has ever known. They home school (or RV school, as they like to joke) and have seen much of the country. But one day a part in the RV breaks down, and they park in a Wal-mart parking lot waiting for it to come in. When June goes into the store one day, she sees her picture on a bulletin board of missing children. It says she is Natalie Edwards and she has been missing since she was 2 from Dogwood, WV. The age progression technology forms a pretty accurate representation, and a birthmark is a key identifying factor. June doesn’t tell her father, or supposed father, this right away, though. He’s been a good dad, though quiet and not wanting to stay in one place for long.

Meanwhile, back in Dogwood, Mae Edwards is the only one who believes her granddaughter is still alive. Her daughter, Dana, said her car was abducted with the baby still in it, and neither was ever seen again. Until now: someone has discovered an old car in the lake, and Sheriff Hadley Preston presides as it is extricated from the lake. When he investigates, he finds it is the missing car, but there is no child’s body in it, and the strap on the car seat has been cut.

The story started out a little slowly for me, but picked up in the latter half as all the pieces started coming together.

Also, at first, I was expecting it to be more of a parallel to Les Mis than it was based on some of the blurbs I had seen about it. I know remakes or retellings of favorite stories never match point for point, but once I stopped trying to compare and contrast it to Les Mis and just enjoyed it for the story itself, I got a lot more out of it plus enjoyed the throwbacks to it I did see.

Probably the most disappointing comparison was with the mother of the girl. In Les Mis, Fantine was something of a tragic victim. She made some wrong choices, but she was taken advantage of first by the man who got her pregnant, then the couple who were taking care of her child and inventing stories about her needs to get more money out of her, then she ran into hard luck when she was fired after it was discovered she had a child out of wedlock. Desperate to get the money she thought her child needed, she sold everything she had, including her hair and teeth, and finally ended up in prostitution. I read somewhere that author Victor Hugo considered prostitution was a form of slavery. When her path crossed Valjean’s and he realized that being fired from his factory had contributed to her situation, he helped her and took care of her child when she died, and the grace shown between the two is one of the best parts of the story. However, the mother in June Bug, Dana, comes across as just a bad, selfish person. I guess you could say she is a victim of her addictions, and we’ve had extended family members in the same boat and know what drugs can do to a person’s perspective. But there’s nothing about Dana that makes the reader sympathetic to her.

The most exciting surprise, though, was in the character who turned out to be Johnson’s benefactor, the part taken in Les Mis by the bishop who shows Valjean a kindness that changes his life and helps him both spiritually and practically. I don’t want to spoil it, so I won’t say more about it, but it totally caught me by surprise and I was delighted by how that played out.

As a story on its own merits, I ended up liking it and enjoying it much more near the end than I did at the beginning. Fabry’s characters are well drawn, and I liked the journey they went through.

Looking around Chris Fabry’s blog a little bit for more information on June Bug, I found this fun entry on How to Get Your Book Mentioned on Jeopardy, which tells some of the background and progression of writing the book and how it really did end up being a clue of Jeopardy.

Genre: Christian fiction
My rating: 8 out of 10

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books and Carole’s Books You Loved)

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Book Review: The Sea Glass Sisters

sea-glass-ssiters The Sea Glass Sisters by Lisa Wingate is an novella prequel to The Prayer Box, which I read and reviewed last year. A major character in that book is Sandy, owner of Sandy’s Sea Shell Shop on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, who has a significant influence on the life of main character Tandi. The Sea Glass Sisters  shares some of Sandy’s background and the circumstances involving the hurricane that hit the area just prior to The Prayer Box.

The main character in this story, however, is Sandy’s niece, Elizabeth Gallagher. Her life is coming unraveled: pressures on her job as a 911 dispatcher, distance in her relationships with her husband and children, problems piling up she doesn’t know what to do about. Just as she is riddled with guilt that a mistake she made on a call may have cost a young girl her life, her mother recruits her for a multi-state drive to Hatteras Island, NC. Her mother and Sandy are sisters, and her mother wants to “talk some sense” into Sandy and get her to move back. All the rest of the relatives live on properties all touching each other. Sandy, seemingly on a whim, went to NC and opened this shop, and now wants to sell her property in Michigan. Besides wanting to keep the family properties together and have Sandy back, she is worried about hurricanes and Sandy’s neglected health.

In fact, as Elizabeth and her mother drive to NC, a hurricane is on its way to the area. But her mother is convinced she can persuade Sandy to come back with them before they’re in danger. When they arrive, they can understand what attracted Sandy to the area, but they still want her to come home. When the hurricane presses toward them, they ride out the storm together and get to know each other better in the process.

Some standout quotes:

I decipher the brewing machine because I am, after all, trained to save lives, and this is a life-or-death situation. We need coffee. Now. Or heads will roll.

Every decision you make in life has benefits and consequences. Sometimes you just have to go on faith, and even that comes at a price. It means you have to give up the idea that you’re the one in charge of the universe.

No way out but through the storm now.

That’s the only thing you can do with a mess. Start cleaning it up, a little at a time.

The shadow of the highest evil intermingled with the light of the highest good. Maybe all lives are filled with this. Maybe it is always a choice between embracing the darkness of one or the saving grace of the other.

We’ve tried to set her straight, but you don’t set that woman anywhere. She’s like the value of pi. She just is.

Maybe life is a series of little deaths and rebirths, of passages and rites of passage, of God teaching you to stop clinging to one thing so you can reach for another.

Lisa packed quite a lot into this little book. I loved what Elizabeth learned along the way and the sense of place or setting Lisa created in the book. I love that cover! It looks like a shop I would want to visit. I enjoyed my second visit to the outer Banks via Lisa’s books – or third, actually, including A Sandy’s Seashell Shop Christmas – and look forward to more.

Genre: Christian fiction
Objectionable elements: None.
My rating: 10 out of 10

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books and Carole’s Books You Loved)

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Book Review: The Silver Suitcase

silver-suitcaseI don’t remember where I saw The Silver Suitcase by Terrie Todd mentioned, but when it came up for a Kindle/Audible sale, I got it.

It begins with a young girl in Canada in the 1980s starting a school project with her grandmother about WWII. Part 1 features the grandmother, Cornelia’s, experiences at the end of the Depression and into the beginning of the war; Part 2 takes place in modern times with the granddaughter, Benita, grown and married with two children. In Part 3 Benita is given her grandmother’s old diaries and discovers much about her that she did not know. Throughout the latter parts, the scene jumps back and forth between Cornelia’s and Benita’s time frames, but it is not too confusing to follow since each chapter starts with the date.

Cornelia’s mother died when she was 12, and she had to quit school early to help her father run their farm. At a fairly young age she is doing everything a grown woman would do to maintain a household. She has never forgiven God for taking her mother so early, though she hides that fact from anyone else. Her diary is the only place she honestly pours out her heart. When she meets the son of her mother’s old friend, her life takes a turn for the better. But a tragedy and a momentous secret drive her to the point of desperation.

Benita’s husband has been out of work for some time, and the strain is wearing on their marriage. A series of losses, especially that of her grandmother, and a new opportunity for the family only add to the strain. Her mother gives her a silver suitcase that her grandmother wanted her to have. Besides several mementos, it contains decades worth of her grandmother’s old diaries. Benita learns of a side of her grandmother that she never knew and can hardly fathom: how can her sweet-faith-filled grandmother have ever been so vitriolic in her hatred of God?

The story is a good one, and there were several little touches I liked.A couple of my favorite lines:

Neither the why answers nor the how answers will satisfy your heart. One day, you will have both. But even if you could grasp them now, they would not heal your wounds. Only love can do that. And God loves you more than you can ever understand or imagine.

But most of the time, his words soothed her. It reminded her of her childhood, when she had come in crying with a skinned knee. How good it felt when her mother washed it off, pulled her onto her lap, carefully applied ointment to the knee, and gently rocked her to sleep. Although the cleansing stung, it was wonderful to feel so loved and cherished.

But one part was a major red flag to me.

This is the second book I’ve read recently involving somebody meeting their guardian angel. I hope it’s not becoming a trend. I can see it occasionally as a plot device (a la It’s a Wonderful Life), when the audience knows the writer isn’t really intending us to believe that this happened.

But in Christian fiction, it feels like cheating in a sense. Many might like a heavenly messenger to come down and tell us in person what God wants us to know and be able to ask him questions, but it’s far from likely. I think it would be more helpful and meaningful to show the character discovering spiritual truth through the Bible or a Christian friend. I know that’s not as dramatic, but it’s more realistic.

Nevertheless, I can live with an angel as part of a story, though it’s not my favorite. But there is an emphasis on Cornelia’s looking in his eyes that I find kind of disturbing, as if that’s somehow more reassuring than anything else:

When Cornelia looked directly into his eyes she could see that he spoke the truth. No one had ever looked at her like that.

She believed in a creator, and she believed in Jesus. She had found it difficult to accept that he loved her. But now, looking into this messenger’s face, there was no denying that fact.

Now, having looked into the eyes of Aziel, she saw things so much differently.

But worst of all, she writes much later in her diary, “I maintain my friendship with Jesus by talking to him daily…I read my Bible, too, but it’s still my experience of last December, of actually having his messenger beside me, which sustains me.”

The apostle Peter had one of the most marvelous experiences ever, something which only two others shared, when they saw Jesus glorified before their eyes. But after describing it, he said: “We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts: Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (II Peter 19-21). God’s Word is more sure than even the most exalted religious experience.

Thankfully the author does have Cornelia sharing spiritual truth later in the book. Cornelia doesn’t tell anyone about this experience. It’s just sad to me that that’s what “sustains” her.

I also disagreed with a section where someone says, “Jesus comes in all shapes and sizes. You need to learn to see him in every pair of eyes you lock onto.” True, we’re all made in God’s image, and Jesus said whatever we have done “unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:31-46). I think the truth of either of these two passages would have made a stronger case for what the author is trying to say in this section, and probably that’s what she means by seeing Jesus in every pair of eyes. But Jesus isn’t actually in every person we meet. The distinction is made in several places in the Bible. Just one example: “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (I John 5:12).

So, I obviously have mixed emotions about this one. The story was fairly interesting, but due to some of the other issues, I probably won’t be seeking out this author again.

Genre: Inspirational fiction
My rating: for the story itself, maybe a 7 out of 10, but due to the theological problems, a 5 out of 10.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books and Carol‘s Books You Loved )

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Book Review: Home to Chicory Lane

chicory-innIn Home to Chicory Lane by Deborah Raney, Audrey and Grant Whitman decide to turn their empty nest into a bed and breakfast in Missouri. They’ve sunk a good bit of their resources into it, hoping to make some back, and Grant has retired from his stressful job to help operate the inn. After decorating and getting everything ready, friends and family come in for the grand opening. But someone totally unexpected shows up right in the midst of the big day: their daughter Landyn, a newlywed living in NY with her husband, unannounced, alone, and with a UHaul.

Trying to get to the bottom of what’s going on with Landyn, trying to figure out how best to help, while still staying on top of things for the inn makes for a stressful time.

Landyn made me want to shake her by the shoulders at first. But I enjoyed seeing how she and her husband, Chase, finally came together and tried to work out their issues through very plot twists and turns.

I identified most with the parents: it’s hard to know sometimes with adult children when to advise, when to help, and when to step back and let them figure it out and grow on their own.

Overall it was a very enjoyable book. The one spot I didn’t like was when the young couple came together after a long separation. It’s not as graphic as Song of Solomon or Proverbs 5:19, but I would rather the scene had stopped a few paragraphs earlier.

It did convince me definitely that one thing I never want to do is open a bed and breakfast. 🙂

This is the first of three in a series called Chicory Inn novels, and I’m looking forward to getting to know more of the Whitman’s large family.

Genre: Christian fiction
My rating: 9 out of 10
Potential objectionable elements: The scene mentioned.
Recommendation: Yes.

(Sharing at Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, and Carol‘s Books You Loved)

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Book Review: Every Waking Moment

every-waking-momentIn Every Waking Moment by Chris Fabry, Devin Hillis is a filmmaker with vision but no cash. He wants to make a documentary of the stories of people in the Desert Gardens assisted-living facility. He tries to support himself in the meantime by making shorter memorials for funerals, but that’s not paying the bills, and both his partner and his landlord are on his case.

His time in Desert Gardens brings to his attention an employee there named Treha Langsam. At first she looks like perhaps she is developmentally delayed somehow, but she is very intelligent. She has nystagmus, a condition which causes her eyes to be almost constantly moving, and when she’s agitated she makes a typing motion with her hands, but otherwise she seems emotionless. She grew up in various foster homes and has little to no memory of her history. But she seems to have a gift: she is able to bring out residents who have been closed off and uncommunicative to where they are speaking clearly. She was hired for janitorial services, but when the facility supervisor, Miriam Howard, saw her work with the residents, she let her have free reign to interact with them. Devin thinks Treha may be the story he’s looking for.

But Miriam is about to retire, and the new supervisor is more concerned about her own rules and regulations than care of the residents. She has her eye on Treha, threatening to fire her if she does anything other than clean.

What will happen to Treha and the residents if she loses her job, and will Devin and Miriam be able to solve the mystery of Treha’s background, not just for the documentary, but for her future?

I got this book right on the heels of finishing Not in the Heart by Chris Fabry because I loved his writing so much and wanted to read more. I was looking at that book on Amazon when a link to this book with these words from Chris intrigued me:

What if this is as good as life gets? Are you okay with that?

This question has haunted me over the past few years. Several years ago we moved to the desert for health reasons. Looking for recovery in a dry and thirsty land. And I realized my soul was more thirsty than anything.

Every Waking Moment is my effort to take some of the pain and loss of life and sift it through the life of a young woman who’s been marginalized in society, working among people who are marginalized (the elderly). This character, Treha, has an extraordinary gift that few observe because she’s “different.”

Like most of my tales, it’s a love story, a mystery, part thriller–but mostly a character sketch of lonely people looking for hope. And it’s my intent that you find hope and meaning for your own life through Treha’s journey.

That theme of “What if this is as good as it gets” comes up for several characters throughout the book. Poking around Chris’s web site, I saw that this novel arose in part because of his family’s experience with toxic mold and the detrimental effects it has had on his family’s health. That is not what caused Treha’s problems, but he draws parallels from the experience.

Not in the Heart was fast-paced and suspenseful. Every Waking Moment is a different kind of book. It has moments of suspense, and of course there is the mystery of Treha’s history and what made her the way she is. But overall the book has a different pace and feel to it. But it is still quite good.

Some of the lines about or by the facility residents were especially poignant to me with the decline of my mother-in-law’s health and abilities over the last several years:

The daughter didn’t realize that this was part of the problem. The same tasks that wore her mother down were the tasks that gave her structure and stability. Worth. When she could no longer do them and others were paid to accomplish things she had done as long as she could remember, life became a calendar of guilt–every day lived as a spectator, watching others do what she couldn’t.

Deciding what Mother would like or wouldn’t like was a seesaw between two relatives who were guessing. Love looked like this and worse and was accompanied by a mute, white-haired shell.

“I want that person you knew to return. But the truth is, this may be the best we achieve. Today, having her here and comfortable and not agitated…that may be as good as we get. Are you okay with that?”

“Your love for your mother is not conditional on her response. You love her for who she is. You don’t love her because of the things she can do for you.”

“The medical community views individuals as patients to be cured. But when people age, they’re not looking for a cure as much as they are for encouragement to continue. Our work here is not about curing. It’s about the dignity of each person…”

“Value people not just for the income they provide us. Value them because of the lives they’ve lived. Value each person who pushes a broom or cleans a bedpan. And value the girl whose life is marred, yes, but who gives these people more than a doctor ever will.”

“Growing older is not much fun. It’s the slowing down that gets to you. Elsie calls it ‘vigor mortis.’ You just can’t do what you used to.”

“Old age teaches you in a very unkind way that things won’t necessarily get better. Not in this life. In fact, you can pretty much count on things degenerating. Being content is not a lack of ambition. It’s being able to rest and relax and know that your worth doesn’t come from what others think of you or even what you think of you.”

And one I loved just for the writing: “Retirement was bearing down on Miriam like a semitruck trying to make it through a yellow light.”

For those of you who like book trailers:

I enjoyed this book quite a lot and can heartily recommend it to you.

(Sharing at Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)