The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge, by M.T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin

Assassination of Brangwain SpurgeThe kingdoms of the elves and the goblins are ostensibly working to maintain a fragile peace by catapulting the elfin scholar, Brangwain Spurge, into the goblin kingdom in order to bring the goblin king a gift. Little does he know that the beautiful gem that he carries is actually a powerful bomb. His host, the goblin archivist Werfel, is also unaware of the danger as he proudly escorts Brangwain around his home and city for a few days before his meeting with the king.

Brangwain is thoroughly disgusted with goblin culture, with its inedible food and their custom of keeping as mementos the skins that they shed every few years. The archivist, for his part, is less than impressed with the elfin scholar, who rudely rebuffs all of his obsequious attempts to share the most refined aspects of goblin life. Furthermore, Werfel has discovered that his guest goes into a trance in his room each evening, and he suspects that he is somehow transmitting information back to the elf government.

This wildly original story is told in both text and illustration, in much the same manner as Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck. Anderson has written the prose chapters, and the story is deepened and continued in Yelchin’s black and white drawings across a succession of two-page spreads. The illustrations carry the key to the changing thoughts and attitudes of the two main characters as they begin to understand that reality may not be what they had been taught, and that good and evil exist in both of their kingdoms and in many of the people whom they thought they knew. But will they figure all of this out before disaster strikes?

What appears to be an almost comic fairy story holds deep relevance to our own lives as we seek to respect other cultures, but those who trust in governments may be disturbed. Reluctant readers will enjoy the fast pace and abundant illustrations. Despite being over 500 pages, it is a relatively quick read. Parents and teachers will find endless timely discussion points here. Brangwain is on everybody’s “Best of 2018” list, and you won’t read anything else remotely like it.

Recommended.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The Sea Queen, by Linnea Hartsuyker

Sea QueenRagnvald, hero of The Half-Drowned King, returns home after his battles in King Harald’s name, only to find that a distant relative has moved into his house with a contingent of soldiers. Atli claims that Sogn belonged to his grandfather. Hilda tells her husband that Atli is a pretty nice guy, especially since he killed the soldier who assaulted her, and Ragnvald can see that Atli is winning the affections of his sons.

In the meantime, his sister, Svanhild, has married Ragnvald’s archenemy, Solvi Hunthiofsson, and is fighting for the life of their fragile son. She wants to claim a farm in Iceland, but Solvi’s home is a dragon ship on the sea. Svanhild was always tough, but living with Solvi has made her stronger than ever. She will need all of her resources and intelligence to handle the challenges that could change this farm girl into the Sea Queen.

Frozen landscapes, royal courts, and stormy seas are the changing backdrops in this action-packed sequel. Readers may think that this is a fantasy story, but it is solid historical fiction in pre-Christian Scandinavia.  Hartsuyker returns to her fascinating cast of characters, weaving battle scenes into the ongoing drama of betrayals, love affairs, political schemes, births, deaths, joys and sorrows. Great storytelling for those of us who love the Norse.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this title. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Finding God in the Waves, by Mike McHargue

Finding God in the WavesMike McHargue, or “Science Mike,” as he is known online, was a happy member of his evangelical church, teaching Sunday School, eating lunch with the church leaders, and leading his daughters to Christ. As a scientist, though, he eventually had to admit that he didn’t believe any of it. He was an atheist.

After Mike admitted his disbelief to his stunned wife, he was invited to a gathering in California with Rob Bell, during which he had what can only be described as a supernatural experience. He wasn’t looking for it, but it was a turning point in his life. From that day on, he began the work of examining every aspect of faith from a scientific and logical perspective and reconstructing the parts of his faith that he could accept. In this volume, he scrutinizes the existence of God, the origins of the universe, the humanity and deity of Jesus, the validity of the Bible, the practice of prayer, the church, and other basic Christian beliefs chapter by chapter. For each concept, he has written an axiomatic statement, saying what he can believe at the very least about each one. His beliefs are still far from what anyone would call orthodox Christianity, but his research is fascinating.

Mike has two websites, Ask Science Mike and The Liturgists, which he co-hosts with the musician, Michael Gungor. My niece, Hannah, had mentioned The Liturgists to me a couple of years ago, and I’ve listened to several of their podcasts. They examine issues of faith and doubt, science, culture, and art from a wide-open viewpoint that could speak to believers of any religion, spiritual seekers, and non-believers alike. When I read the book The New Copernicans (reviewed here), David Seel also talked about Mike McHargue and The Liturgists. When he said that Mike had written a book, I had to check it out.

Science Mike’s experience is different from most former Christians in that he loves the church. The vast majority of books written by the deconstruction/ reconstruction crowd recount intensely painful episodes that estranged them from the church and caused them to doubt God’s goodness or the truth of Christianity. In Mike’s case, he stopped teaching Sunday School out of respect for his church, but he continued to attend. After his podcast, Ask Science Mike, became popular, though, people started coming from far and wide to attend his church and talk to him. Services got weird. Eventually, his pastors came to him and basically said, “Dude, we love you, but do you mind?” He got it. His family left their conservative church and finally found one where he could ask hard questions and not always find answers.

If you or someone you know has doubts about God or spiritual experiences that need scientific answers, Finding God in the Waves could be a great starting point. Mike describes what happens in the brain when we pray, looks into scientific explanations of the origins of everything, and even describes his own evolution on several topics. The book is not an apologetic work in the religious sense of that word. Mike does not attempt to lead anyone to Christ and may even lead a weak person further away. However, this is a very friendly and readable account of one man’s pilgrimage toward truth.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book, obtained through interlibrary loan, after which I purchased a copy to share. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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My Plain Jane, by Cynthia Hand, &c.

My Plain Jane audioJane Eyre and Charlotte Brontë are students at Lowood School, where they are, naturally, cold and starving. Charlotte, who is continually scribbling in her notebook, thinks that Jane is somewhat odd, since she talks to herself at times. In actuality, Jane is talking to her friend, Helen Burns, who died a short while ago. When Jane hears that the Society for the Relocation of Wayward Spirits is coming to a local pub, she runs in to observe, and the star agent— the handsome Alexander Blackwood— realizes that Jane can see ghosts, just as the Society members can. It turns out that Jane is a “beacon,” one of the few people in each generation who can draw ghosts to themselves. Most people think that Jane is quite plain, but to the ghosts, she is incredibly lovely.

Once the head of the Society finds out that Jane is a beacon, he orders Blackwood to bring her to London to work with them—spare no expense, whatever it takes. But Jane has never had a normal life, and so she decides to take a nice, quiet governess position at Thornfield Hall, in the employ of one Mr. Rochester. While her boss is tall, dark, and brooding—everything a young woman could desire—Mr. Blackwood will not give up on wooing her to a position with the Society, and Miss Brontë has agreed to help him. Meanwhile, Helen sticks with Jane and continually offers stubbornly sensible but hilarious advice that is generally ignored.

If all this sounds familiar, but just a little off, that’s because Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows have taken the classic Jane Eyre and tossed it in a blender with a ghost story, a spy thriller, a dash of romance, and a cup or two of humor. This is a rollicking tale of wild goose chases, mistaken identities, and brilliant satire. For those who missed the first book in this series, My Lady Jane, it is not necessary to read them in order. Let’s hope that the authors have many more Janes in store.

I listened to the downloadable audio version of this book, which was fantastic. Fiona Hardingham brought all of her comedic talent to bear on this story. My favorite voice was that of Helen Burns, a petulant ghost who sounded very much like Shirley Henderson’s role as the weepy friend with a high voice in Bridget Jones’ Diary who lisped, “Bwidget.”

Teens and adults will be completely entertained by this fast-paced and fun mash-up. During the very worst part of Hurricane Florence, when I thought that trees were going to fall on the house any minute, I sat on a kitchen chair in our pantry under the stairs with my phone balanced on the spice mixes and listened for a couple of hours. I barely heard the storm. I can’t think of a higher recommendation than that!

Disclaimer: I listened to our library’s downloadable audio version of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else. (Although I have talked to several colleagues and they completely agree. But don’t tell anyone.)

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The Poet X, by Elizabeth Acevedo

Poet XXiomara Batista’s Dominican mother never wanted to marry or have children. She wanted to be a nun. She loves her kids, but she is distraught that Xiomara is delaying her confirmation at church, and when she finds out that Xiomara has been asking Father Sean challenging questions, she clamps down on her even harder.

Xiomara hates it when the boys make comments about her curves when she walks down the street in Harlem. She is tall, with wild hair, and she holds back the world with her fists and tough talk. She pours her heart into her very private poetry notebook: her doubts about God, her confusion about her mother and father’s relationship, her hesitant forays into growing up, her fears for her brother, and her timid and hopeful feelings for a boy named Aman. They share a love of music. She lets him hear some of her poetry, and he names her X.

Her mother would never allow this.

Elizabeth Acevedo has written this semi-autobiographical novel in verse, with a couple of school essays woven in. The poetry allows X’s love of words to express the struggles of a young woman who loves her immigrant parents, but who cannot be true to herself without hurting them. Her voice is at once fragile and fierce, exploring cultural divisions, first love, faith and doubt, and the human need to speak freely and openly to the world. When a lid is screwed down more and more tightly while pressure continues to build, an explosion is inevitable.

Recommended for middle teens to adults, with a bit of strong language and sexual content. Caution: May cause spontaneous versifying and a sudden urge to participate in a poetry slam. Ironically, the last line of this novel is “And isn’t that what a poem is? A lantern glowing in the dark,” which I read by lantern light during a power outage from Hurricane Florence.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Educated, by Tara Westover

Educated audioTara grew up in a fundamentalist Mormon family on a mountain in Idaho. Her father sold scrap, and her mother was an unlicensed midwife who concocted herbal tinctures for sale. The family was saving up food and firearms so that they could survive the coming revolution. Her father was already a survivalist when the Ruby Ridge Massacre happened not far away, and there was no turning back after that. Since her father did not trust anything to do with the government, the children did not go to school, and although he told them to tell people that they were homeschooled, there was no education going on whatsoever.

As Tara grew into adolescence, she was taught to be ashamed of her changing body, so she wore loose men’s clothing and worked in the scrapyard along with her brothers. They had no insurance, took frightening risks, and endured horrifying accidents. Her father would not allow them to go to a hospital or visit a regular doctor. Even when one of her brothers had a piece of his skull missing and his brain was clearly visible, her father told her to bring him home so that his mother could take care of him.

The best outcome of childhoods like Tara’s would be to grow up and leave forever, but the underlying physical and psychological abuse kept her bound to her home. The only acceptable future in her parents’ eyes was for Tara to marry within their faith, have children, and become a midwife like her mother. Tara longed to go to college, but she could barely read. It was the shame, above all, that kept her from reaching out for help. She even hid the physical injuries she endured from her sadistic brother.

I had to keep reminding myself that this riveting story is a memoir, just so that I could keep going without fear that Tara would die at any moment. I found myself saying out loud, “No, don’t go back home!” and “No, don’t get in the car with your brother!” The power of the love that children have for even worthless parents, which I witnessed firsthand as a foster mother decades ago, is astounding and sometimes unfathomable to outside observers. Hateful words, inflicted on a little child year after year by adults who should be trustworthy, can gouge permanent wounds that leave disfiguring scars on their souls. On the other hand, loving adults who speak healing and encouraging words can bring a triumph that seems impossible.

I highly recommend this popular memoir, which I listened to on audiobook for reasons that I will relate on TheReaderWrites in a few weeks. The narration, by Julia Whelan, was excellent.

Disclaimer: I listened to a digital audio version of this book, downloaded from our library. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The New Copernicans, by David Seel, Jr.

New CopernicansNo one seems to have a kind word to say about Millennials: they’re spoiled and entitled, they live in their parents’ basements and still expect to be treated as adults, they spend all their time waiting to be triggered by the slightest micro-aggressions, and on and on ad nauseum. I disagree, and so does David Seel. As a matter of fact, he thinks that the church needs to take a lesson from them, because Millennials are more like Jesus than the generations that came before them.

For the past 300 years, the church has been steered by an Enlightenment understanding of the world: left-brained and rational. Seel believes that the current young generation operates on a more right-brained basis, and that there is a huge frame shift coming. He prefers the terms “frame shift” and “social imaginary” to “worldview.” He considers the coming frame shift to be on a scale not seen since Copernicus posited that the sun is the center of the universe, rather than the earth. For many reasons, not the least of which is the ubiquity of the internet, today’s young adults are exposed to hyperpluralism on a daily basis and are more apt to deal with life experientially, rather than drawing up rational arguments. Seel reminds us that the Bible was written well before the Enlightenment, and that Jesus related to his disciples by walking on the road with them and telling stories.

Seel divides up our social imaginaries into four categories. On the left side are the two closed frames of thought, those who are “dwellers,” and are unable or unwilling to be flexible. On the right side are the two open frames of thought, those who are “explorers,” and are open to new considerations or ideas. On both the open and closed sides, one finds transcendent and immanent people. Those who are immanent believe only in what they see, hear, touch, and so on. Those who are transcendent believe that there is more than we can see in this world. Evangelical Christians are closed transcendents. They believe in more than what is on this earth, but they are rigid about what that means. They may differ from one denomination to another about those beliefs, but each group is fixed. The church’s missionary efforts are directed at two types of people: those who grew up in the evangelical community and are now living a sinful life, whom the church is trying to woo back, and the classical, university-type atheist, who is a closed immanent. Old-style atheists are just as fixed in their beliefs as the church, and the two groups lob Aristotelian and Scholastic logical arguments back and forth with little movement on either side. Seel states that both of these groups are disappearing rapidly.

All New Copernicans live on the “open” side of the divide, rendering the church’s efforts useless. Most of them are open immanents, for whom God is not terribly important. They live as practical atheists, not really seeing a need for God, but because they are open to other ideas, they are “haunted,” as Seel says. They are willing to believe in supernatural or spiritual experiences, and Christians have a great opportunity to walk on pilgrimage with them in order to lead them toward open transcendence, which is where Seel believes the entire church needs to be. We should be willing to talk about our doubts and struggles, willing to evangelize through relationships without ulterior motives, and willing to be more like poets than politicians. As Seel so beautifully says on page 68:

“What if a relationship with Jesus is more like falling in love than answering the questions on a philosophy or history exam?”

For several years now, those closest to me have had to endure hearing my anguish over the state of the church. As an institution, it cannot continue as it is today. Just a glance at some statistics about Millennials should be enough to make this case. For example, consider the exponential growth of the group called the “nones.” These are people who check the box “none” on forms asking for religious affiliation. Within the Millennial generation, which makes up almost a quarter of the American population, 40% consider themselves nones. This is a 400% increase since their parents’ generation at the same age, and it is growing daily. According to Pew research, 78% of religious nones were raised in religious households. In case that hasn’t hit you yet, think of how many older believers you know who have grown children who have left the church. Seel contends that they are not coming back, so we should stop thinking that they will follow in their parents’ footsteps, get married, have kids, and go back to church. They have a completely changed frame of reference, and closed transcendence will not be a part of it.

It is not only Millennials who have moved from closed to open transcendence, however. Seel mentions many historical and current church leaders who are on pilgrimage, as well, including many who have been seriously wounded by the institutional church. As he says, “There is usually blood in the water.” (p. 105) Seel believes that Millennials, because of their age and common experiences, are the most likely to be carriers of this monumental frame shift, but because others are moving with them, it is more accurate to use the term “the New Copernicans.” He believes that it is essential for church leaders to listen to younger pastors and other church leaders and to begin to hand over the reins to them as soon as possible.

This book is written with an eye to church leaders and pastors in order to bring about awareness and positive change, as, indeed, the subtitle is Millennials and the Survival of the Church. I heard Dr. Seel speak on a podcast, and he said that when he wrote the book, he considered that the church had ten good years left, but since then, events have happened so rapidly that he believes the timeline is down to five years. Readers, particularly those in traditional churches, will not agree with everything that Seel is recommending—I certainly did not– but it is not necessary to agree on particulars, as long as we can widen our view. However, many of his ideas are intriguing, motivational, and kind. With all of our denominational infighting, we are losing the forest for the trees. Or, in Seel’s frequent metaphor, the church is still playing Spades, but the game has changed to Hearts. How can we win, if we aren’t even playing the same game?

Important, but controversial, reading.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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