Book Review: To Be Where You Are

To Be Where You AreI don’t often read books “hot off the press.”  Usually I have so many stacked up from my last birthday, Christmas, etc., that anything new goes behind them. But Jan Karon’s books are an exception: they go straight to the front of the queue! To Be Where You Are is her newest, and its action starts right on the heels of Come Rain or Come Shine, in which Father Tim’s adopted son, Dooley, married his fiance, Lace.

In this book, Dooley and Lace have been fostering a four-year-old boy named Jack, and they’re making plans for a big celebration on what they call Name Day, when their adoption becomes final. That’s probably the major plot line, but as always in Mitford, there are multiple things, large and small, going on at any one time. Some of the other happenings in this book, just to name a few: one long-time Mitford resident passes away; another faces a serious illness and others offer to pitch in at his place of business; major plumbing problems wreak havoc at Dooley’s practice; Lace is offered a major art project which would take care of the plumbing bills, but it’s in California; a number of romances are blossoming; another Mitford resident is looking for ways to spice up his marriage; another is considering running for mayor; another is writing a book (not Cynthia!).

A few favorite spots:

She thought that one of the hardest parts of marriage was being loving when both partners were exhausted or wounded at the same time. When you had the least strength, that’s when you had to dig beyond your limits and grab whatever could be found and give it away.

She needed complete solitude to do this huge thing. No music, no interruptions, just the work. But that was not going to happen, and she had to get used to it.

Lights on in the town at the foot of the hill. Stars on in the great bowl above.

How could he do possibly want to do this fool thing?…Maybe it wasn’t about wanting or not wanting. Though he was beyond serving the mission field, wasn’t his own town a mission field?…And didn’t charity begin at home?

Once in a blue moon they got an October morning like this. It was a day when he could almost smell the ocean, when a gull might wing overhead. He wasn’t the biggest fan of sand and sea, but occasionally some hungering gnawed at him for the visual feast of the Atlantic plain and the knowledge – more like a secret revealed only to Tim Kavanaugh – that over there were Ireland and England and Scotland and Italy and…

His sermon had been preached 24/7 on the floor of The Local for more than three and a half decades.

Reading the Mitford books is like coming home for an extended visit. It was fun seeing how things had changed and yet stayed the same. The same warmth, gentle humor, and undercurrent of truth pervades this book just as it has the others. I don’t know how long Jan will continue writing Mitford books, but I’ll keep reading as many as she wants to write!

Another nice plus to reading this volume now is that the book started in October, and I also started reading (or listening) to it in October, so there were parallels in the setting to what I was experiencing personally.

I listened to the audiobook, wonderfully read, as the other Mitford books have been, by John McDonough.

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

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Book Review: The Sandcastle Sister

Sandcastle SisterThe Sandcastle Sister by Lisa Wingate is a novella sequel to The Story Keeper, and both are part of the Carolina Chronicles series.

In The Story Keeper, Jen Gibbs had escaped an almost cultish group in the Appalachian hills of NC to go to college and then work in publishing. An old unsigned manuscript led her back to her roots, to a reclusive author, and to a discovery of a people called the Melungeons.

In this book. the reclusive author, Evan Hall, writes a bestseller about the Melungeons and Jen serves as his editor. They develop a relationship, and when the book comes out, Evan insists that Jen accompany him on the book tour, which takes them across Europe. When he wants to tie the knot in Paris, Jen pulls away. An urgent situation with her sister brings her back to the States.

Her youngest sister, Lily, had come out from the same group that Jen had, but without burning her bridges. She wants to become a pharmacist and go back to man the only pharmacy in the area she comes from. But along the way she researches her family history, trying to find out whatever became of the mother who left the family years ago, and discovers a half-sister that no one in the family knew of. Lily is determined to look up this sister, and Jen decides to accompany Lily for her safety and protection. They end up in the Outer Banks of NC (the setting for the first book in the series, The Prayer Box), and come across some of its characters. While searching, Jen wrestles with her reasons for hesitating to marry Evan and wonders if she can overcome them. But what they find in the Outer Banks changes their lives in many ways.

I enjoyed this little book. It was fun to see what became of the characters from The Story Keeper and to see the tie-ins with the other books. The faith element is not quite as obvious in this one, but it’s there. I actually ended up reading the last book in the series out of order before this one, so I’ll discuss it tomorrow.

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

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Book Review: The Story Keeper

Story KeeperIn The Story Keeper by Lisa Wingate, Jen Gibbs has just moved up in her publishing career to work with the prestigious Vida House Publishing in New York. A competitive former coworker is there as well. The head, George Vida, has what’s called Slush Mountain in the conference room – a pile of manuscripts that for various reasons were not able to be returned to the owners. A cardinal rule at Vida House is that no one touches Slush Mountain.

So when Jen discovers an old manila envelope on her desk with a manuscript containing a hand-drawn cover, she can’t help but wonder if someone, perhaps her old coworker, is setting her up for a fall, making it look like she took one of Slush Mountain’s old manuscripts to peruse. But curiosity gets the better of her, and as she starts reading it, she’s drawn into the story of Sarra, a teenage Melungeon girl in Appalachia in the late 1800s. The Melungeons were a mixture of three races, European, African, and Native American, often with dark hair and skin and blue eyes. Unfortunately, they were also the subject of racism and suspicion. Sarra escapes a dangerous situation and ends up with an unlikely protector, Rand Champlain, a man from one of Charleston’s oldest families who is in the area to study the native flora and fauna.

Jen is thoroughly drawn in to the story, and she recognizes similarities in style and vocabulary to a famous author who is now a bit of a recluse. Should she risk her reputation at Vida House to follow this trail? Could she even get through to the suspected author to talk? He now lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains from which Jen herself escaped poverty, ignorance, and an almost cult-like authoritarian religious group. She had planned never to return there: can she face her past for the sake of this story?

Quotes:

All breath in evr’thing been given by Father God, Granddaughter…Not a one he ain’t mindful a. All lives be mattersome to him. Not a one oughtn’t be mattersome to us, same way.

Just a building, created by men, filled with bits of God’s Word torn from context and recombined like the pieces of a ransom note.

The truth was, I yearned, in a soul-deep way, to be Sarra. To ‘feel’ that God was so very close, so very concerned with my particular life, so very ready to protect and to love. Always nearby. Always listening. Always leading.

No matter how many wrong choices we’ve made in the past, we can always decide to make the right ones today. The past need not determine one moment of the future.

My thoughts:

I loved this book: Jen’s progression, the search for the mysteries involving the manuscript, the story within the story of Rand and Sarra, the setting of both a busy NY publishing house and then the Blue Ridge mountain area. Sarra and Rand’s story alternates between the two of them, and I thought Lisa showed great skill writing in their different voices as well as Jen’s – a modern city girl, a backwoods mixed race mountain girl, and a turn-of-the-century Southern aristocrat.

My only very small complaints are, 1), that a lot got wrapped up super-quickly at the end. I had thought, starting into the epilogue, that the story was heading toward a sequel since there was no way everything could be tied up in the last few pages, but it was. And, 2), one of the biggest mysteries was left a mystery, and that was something of a let-down. But those are small enough as to be almost inconsequential.

Otherwise, I enjoyed it immensely. A 9 out of 10.

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

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Book Review: Threads of Suspicion

Threads of SuspicionThreads of Suspicion by Dee Henderson is the sequel to Traces of Guilt, the main character of each being Evie Blackwell. Evie is one of the lead investigators for the Illinois State Police and has recently accepted a spot on the governor’s new Missing Person’s Task Force. She is partnered with a man named David, and each person on the task force starts looking into individual missing person cold cases, but help each other out in crunches.

Evie’s case involves a college student missing for nine years. Much of the job is going through old information and details, re-interviewing people involved, getting an idea of the personality and lifestyle of the victim, forming and ruling out new theories. Evie describes it as tugging on various threads to see which one starts to unravel the case.

David’s case concerns a missing private investigator, and there are some surprising coincidences connecting their cases and even David’s personal life.

Evie’s less successful at unraveling the threads of her own personal life. She has been seriously dating a banker for some time, Paul, and he’s ready to propose. But Evie has doubts. First, she’s a little engagement-shy since she has experienced three broken engagements before. Plus there are significant differences between herself and Paul – their jobs, their personalities, their ambitions. Would those differences complement each other or pull them away from each other? Plus Evie really likes her job and lifestyle and isn’t sure she’s ready for the changes marriage would bring.

As I said of the first book in the series, this is not what you’d call an action-packed book, though action and suspense are in places. It’s more puzzle-solving, following the threads with Evie and seeing whether you come up with the same theories. Plus in both books, the faith element is natural and unforced. And, as with the last several books, there is some crossover of characters from previous stories, and though that’s fun, I think you could still enjoy this as a stand-alone book if you haven’t read the others. I always enjoy Dee and am looking forward to Evie’s next installment.

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

Book Review: Unlimited

Unlimited by Davis Bunn starts off with a bang: Simon Orwell has just had an accident on a hot dusty road in Mexico. He is carrying some sort of apparatus with him. something highly valued, though damaged, and he’s escaping from the man who deliberately caused the accident.

He had been on his way to see his former MIT professor with whom he had helped work on the apparatus. But when he finally makes his way to a safe place, he learns not only that the professor has been killed, but the emails from him were sent after his death.

Simon ends up hiding out at an orphanage run by the professor’s dear friends. Some of those friends see Simon as a danger who needs to leave ASAP. Others, particularly the orphanage director, Harold, see Simon first as a desperate soul in need of help, and secondly as the man who could finish the professor’s research.

Simon had come for only one reason: to apologize to the professor for a former betrayal. Wracked with uneased guilt, with no confidence in his own potential, Simon is at loose ends. But when Harold shows him some of the professor’s further research on the device, a source of free energy, Simon begins to tinker with it and then to believe he can fix it. While Harold is thrilled, he is more concerned with the weight on Simon’s soul and his reclamation.

There are others, though – some lurking in darkness, like the man who caused the car accident, and others lurking behind fake smiles and assurances, who want the apparatus for far different reasons.

Bunn does an excellent job keeping the reader in suspense throughout the book on several fronts: whether the apparatus can be fixed and made to work as intended, whether the wrong people will get their hands on it and hurt people in the process, and whether Simon will respond to the truth Harold is sharing with him and living out before him.

Parts of the story are true, especially the fact that Harold is a real person, a former NASA engineer, who retired to establish orphanages in India and to lecture on principles of success. Honestly, what I read about the latter online, that “internal powerful forces that can propel [people] from ordinary to extraordinary…You can begin now to illuminate your path to future unlimited greatness and Dr. Finch wants to show you how” made me a little uncomfortable and wary. What was presented in Unlimited was fine but I wouldn’t endorse the rest of his teaching without knowing more about it.

This book was made after the 2015 movie of it, rather than the movie being made after the book as is usually the case. I had not heard of the movie and couldn’t find it in any of the usual rental places. I did look it up on Pureflix and found it there – we aren’t members, but it may be worth a trial membership to see it.

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

Book Review: All Things New

All Things New by Lynn Austin takes place at the end of the Civil War and the beginning of Reconstruction, one of the most difficult periods in American history.

Virginians Josephine Weatherly and her mother, Eugenia, and sister Mary have lost their father, oldest brother, and many of their possessions to the war. Their other brother, Daniel, finally comes home but is a broken man. Living for so long with famine, fear, and unanswered prayers, Josephine has lost her faith as well.

As the South tries to recover from the war, various attitudes clash. Some, like Eugenia, want to restore everything to the way it once was and have difficulty treating the former slaves as employees. Some, like Daniel, become bitter and want revenge and control through violence. Josephine is in a fog for a long time, but eventually she sees that things must change. Bored with her listless life and empty time, she begins helping one of their two remaining servants in the garden, much to her mother’s shock and dismay. But Josephine finds that she enjoys doing something useful. She also begins to see the servant, Lizzie, as a real person and learns more about the family she hadn’t even known Lizzie had.

A federal agent is sent to help the freed slaves find positions, start a school for their children, and help negotiate contracts between the former slaves and masters as employee and employer. The former slaves are grateful for his aid, but he is not trusted by the white people because he is a Yankee and still regarded as an enemy. When Josephine runs into him accidentally, at first she is appalled, but as she gets to know him, she finds him and his views thought-provoking and reasonable.

Among the views that need changing are not only those involving slaves and masters, but those involving what it means to be privileged. As Josephine shocks and angers her mother by further activities outside the bounds of what privileged young ladies are supposed to do, Josephine finds new purpose and meaning. And gradually her heart begins to open to the idea that it needs freedom as well.

Here are some of the quotes that stood out to me:

Eugenia hated seeing her daughter stray so far from her aristocratic upbringing to labor like a common woman, even though her hard work was saving all of them.

Jo fought to control her temper, to be the dutiful daughter. She was walking the same narrow path that Dr. Hunter was, her conscience telling her one thing, her sense of duty and her ingrained respect for her mother telling her something else.

“Even after the war, Eugenia, do you still put people into categories the way you were taught to do—rich and poor, socially acceptable and not, black and white?”

“I haven’t placed them there. Life has.”

“But people are all the same in God’s eyes, don’t you think? Or do you believe there will be segregated divisions in heaven like the ones we’ve created here on earth?”

I think you’ll find our children’s values will be different from ours. They’ll see that slavery was wrong and that it had to end. They’ve seen the futility of war. They’re learning to live without wealth and privilege. I would hope our sons and daughters would also learn to look for other qualities in each other besides money and social position.

We have to lead by example. Our generation has to make peace with the Negroes and with the Yankees. We have to show our sons and daughters that the old South was destroyed because it was flawed and that we’re willing to embrace the changes. It will only lead to more suffering if we don’t. We can show our children that many of the changes are good. . . . It begins with us—you and me.

Pride. We began to believe that we were little gods, expanding our empires, living well at the expense of an entire race of people. The Almighty finally had enough and showed us we were only human after all, that we would bleed and die from cannonballs and bullets. He reduced us to the same poverty and helplessness that we inflicted on the Negroes—but some of us just haven’t learned that lesson yet.

The war has exposed our false beliefs and the moral rot that accompanied slavery. All of our prideful decisions and the shameful way we treated the Negroes have been exposed. We were flawed, Eugenia. God said so. It’s time to let go of our old attitudes and rebuild the South with compassion for others and with the belief that’s at the core of our Constitution—that all men are created equal. And it’s up to us to lead by example.

I grew up in southern TX, where we considered ourselves Southerners, but it didn’t really come up much unless someone with a Northern accent was around. It wasn’t until I moved to SC that I met people passionate about being Southern and speaking haughtily about “The War of Northern Aggression.” Students of the Civil War are quick to point out that it wasn’t just about slavery, that there were other issues involved as well. But as John Newton said to Hannah More in a letter concerning their fight against slavery in England:

I think this infamous traffic cannot last long; at least that is my hope…should it still be persevered in, I think it will constitute a national sin, and of a very deep die…I should tremble for the consequences; for, whatever politicians may think, I assuredly know there is a righteous judge who governs the earth. He calls upon us to redress the injured, and should we perversely refuse, I cannot doubt but he will plead his cause himself (as quoted in Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More by Karen Swallow Prior).

I don’t know why it took so long for people to recognize the wrongs of slavery. Ruffled feathers against “Yankees” and “The War of Northern Aggression” aren’t cute any more. Change of heart has been slow in coming, and it’s much better than it was in this era, but there is still a long, long way to go to repent of deep-seated prejudices in this country. I’ve lived in the South all my adult life, in SC, GA, and now TN, and I love it dearly, but we still need to grow.

I thought this book was very well done showing the difficulties of this era on all sides without simplistic platitudes pasted on like band-aids. And beyond the overarching themes and settings, the stories of the individual characters were well-drawn. Highly recommended.

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

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Book Review: All She Ever Wanted

All She Ever WantedAll She Ever Wanted by Lynn Austin opens with a stressed-out Kathleen Seymour. She’s just lost her job, and her daughter, who has always been given everything she ever wanted, has been caught shoplifting. Advised by a counselor to try to connect better with her daughter, Kathleen decides they should go on a road trip back to where she grew up, where she has not been for thirty-five years.

On the way, Kathleen opens up about her own dysfunctional, poverty-stricken childhood that she had kept carefully hidden, with a thief for a father, a mother with little energy and interest, and a Communist uncle.

Conversations with friends and relatives along the way also reveal to Kathleen much she didn’t know about her own mother and grandmother’s lives. Each woman had left home trying to escape her family or situation, each faced stumblingblocks and sorrows, and each made mistakes with her own children. Will they ever find “all they ever wanted,” or are their sins past forgiveness?

My thoughts:

Truly each person has hidden sorrows and struggles, and we need to be “quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19). And, truly, God’s forgiveness is available to all who will accept it and believe in His Son, Jesus. And, truly, we all have enough of our own sins and foibles to deal with that should keep us from judging each other. And we all need to seek God’s will for our lives rather than navigating them on our own and making a mess of things. I was thankful for those emphases throughout the book.

Some readers would want to know that one of the women fell into extramarital sex, but nothing is explicit, and that does happen. It’s a believable part of the story, not there just for titillation.

Though it’s a good story, it’s not my favorite from Lynn. I’m having a hard time putting my finger on exactly why. It was a little disjointed with the back-and-forth timelines between the women. The next to last chapter, while good, and resolved in the ways I would have hoped, yet containing some surprises, seemed just a little too…pat, maybe. There were a couple of places I disagreed with the theology a bit. But none of these were big enough that I wouldn’t recommend the book, and I especially liked the last chapter.

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

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