Monthly Archives: February 2017

Present Over Perfect, by Shauna Niequist

present-over-perfectA few years ago, if Shauna Niequist had been a Roger Hargreaves character, she would have been Little Miss Dependable. Her Midwestern upbringing had taught her to value hard work and reliability as the greatest virtues. Of course she can be class mom! Of course she can bring another meal to a family in need! Of course she can speed up the deadline on her book! Of course she can head up another committee! Of course she can speak at your event! The word “no” could not form in her mouth. She had chosen to be a writer so that she could stay home with her kids, and then discovered that she had been traveling for 40 weeks of the previous year. Never mind that she was throwing up in the airport bathrooms from stress. It all came to a head when she was snorkeling with her little son at a beautiful coral reef, but all she felt was that she was suffocating from a deep sense of self-loathing. Thus began a total meltdown. She called a mentor to ask for advice, and the woman very wisely said, “Stop. Just stop.”

Ms. Niequist has spent the last three years learning how to stop. At first, the silence frightened her, and she discovered that she hated to be alone with herself. Through counseling, prayer, retreats, writing, worship, and other practices, she has struggled to let go of her controlling grip on her life. Written in a series of essays, she shares her journey with the reader, awakening our work-addicted, competitive, exhausted culture to the understanding that life is found in the quiet moments, when we are present to even notice nature, art, and the people we love the most. Her counselor guided her to find what Brennan Manning would call “the present risenness of Christ.” In one telling passage, she admits that her prayers used to sound like a board meeting, listing all of the things she was “working on,” and apologizing for her shortcomings, assuring God that she would do better. Really, she would. Slowly, she is coming to believe that God loves her as she is, unconditionally.

I picked up this new book because of the subtitle: Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of Living. When I first heard about it, all I could remember was that it was that book about not being frantic. Who doesn’t need that these days? Turn on the news: everyone is frantic everywhere. Social media is full of panic and unrest—even violence. In my heart, I knew that Christians should not live in fear or constant turmoil. Although Ms. Niequist and I are at different stages of life and have very different personalities, there was much treasure to be gleaned from these pages. If we can make deliberate choices to turn away from all of the busy-ness of the world and focus on living and loving deeply and authentically, eventually we will be able to rejoice in the love of God and the richness of our relationships.

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

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The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, by Jennifer Ryan

chilbury-ladies-choirIn 1940s England, all the men of fighting age are gone. Since there are no male voices, the vicar of the Chilbury village church decides to suspend the choir. However, Miss Prim is a determined voice instructor, and she sees no reason that the women cannot continue to sing on their own, shocking as that decision may be. Once the ladies realize that they can sing by themselves, work hard for the war effort, and run their families and their village quite well, they begin to rethink many of the traditional restrictions on their lives.

A village is a perfect setting to stage a microcosm of life. All types of people live here, from the bullying general to the mousy church lady, the flirtatious young beauty and the quiet young scholar. In every tiny town, one can find an evil villain masquerading as a good neighbor and a most unlikely courageous hero. All of these characters and more are living in Chilbury, struggling through the dangers and privations of World War II. Tough times tend to highlight the strengths and deficiencies of one’s character, and we can watch the villagers change as they see themselves more clearly or adjust to the tumultuous world around them.

This epistolary novel is told in letters, journal entries, and the occasional poster or announcement. At first, the rotating point of view seems confusing, but there are only a few regular writers, and the reader comes to know and care for them deeply. All the other villagers are seen through their eyes. The many plot strands weave together seamlessly, revealing that village gossip and scandal never take a pause, even during world-changing events.

Ryan’s novel has been compared to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, since they are both epistolary British novels set in World War II. The comparison is apt, up to a point, but I recommended Guernsey to everyone, and although Chilbury is both emotionally moving and loads of fun, it is much more of a women’s novel. The few men in the story are quite often reprehensible, along the lines of a Lifetime Channel movie, and are seen through women’s eyes. There are no male primary characters. That being said, there is much to discuss in this novel, and it would make a fantastic women’s book club choice. It is also the first book I read on the new porch, so it will always have a place in my heart!

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book, which is now available for purchase. Opinions expressed are solely my own, and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The Queen’s Thief series, by Megan Whalen Turner

the-thiefThis is a public service announcement from Reading Central. Megan Whalen Turner writes what is quite probably the best current series of books for young people. In any case, it is certainly my favorite. And while other authors put out a title every year—or in the case of James Patterson and his committees, a book every two weeks—Ms. Turner only publishes every four or five years, so when she has a new book, it is An Event. So, I am hereby announcing that the fifth volume of “The Queen’s Thief” series is due to come out this May.

Why am I telling you this now, rather than just writing a book review in May? Because you need to catch up! There are four books to read in the next two months, so get to it! I am just about to start re-reading the second one. In order, they are:

  • The Thief
  • The Queen of Attolia
  • The King of Attolia
  • A Conspiracy of Kings

Only the first volume, The Thief, seems to be a book for teens. The main character, Eugenides, who has been in prison for theft for several months, is suddenly yanked out into the screaming light of day and conscripted for a special mission with the Magus. A small group of men travel for weeks through rough terrain so that “Gen” can break into an ancient temple and retrieve a stone with mystical powers that can confer immortality on the sovereign who holds it, but can kill anyone who tries to steal it.

The setting is a group of small countries that resemble Greece several centuries after its golden age, with ruined temples and olive groves. So, although it has horses and warring monarchs, it is not at all like the scores of faux-medieval fantasies on the market. Furthermore, it is set in a re-imagined past, with bits of supernatural elements, such as gods and goddesses, but there are no vampires, zombies, or fairies. Rather, it is more a book of political intrigue. After The Thief, the series is more adult than teen, with marriages, diplomacy, spies, and assassinations. This is the perfect series for your kids who are advanced readers if you do not want them exposed to the more seamy side of young adult literature. The language is fine, there are no explicit sex scenes, and Turner does not seem to have an agenda of any kind. So refreshing! On the other hand, the vocabulary is rich, and the plot is complex and challenging.

Why is this the best series out there?

  • Eugenides is one of the most incredible heroes in literature. He has likeable and unlikeable characteristics, is much smarter than he lets on, and is completely unpredictable. In short, he is wickedly cool.
  • Nothing, absolutely nothing, is as it seems. You will be surprised. Turner’s writing is so complex and subtle that you will miss the hints she puts out there and will suddenly be shocked and need to go back and re-read. And…
  • It completely stands up to re-reading. I just finished The Thief for the third time, and I picked up details that I had missed before. It is such a pleasure to read.
  • It is appropriate for everyone, adults and teens, male and female. The only reason that tweens and younger may not be the best audience is because they may not understand it. Otherwise, it is fine for a family read-aloud.

I hope that is enough to send you to the bookstore or library. I was so thrilled to find out that I will have an opportunity to meet this author at SLJ’s Day of Dialog in May, and I hope to post a review of the latest volume, Thick as Thieves, before then!

Read on!

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Fanny in France, by Alice Waters

fanny-in-franceAlice Waters is the famous chef and owner of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, one of the first restaurants to feature organic, locally-grown ingredients, launching a world-wide movement toward real food. Fanny, Alice’s daughter, certainly had a unique childhood, traveling with her mom and spending much of her time with friends in France. The French food that she ate was not associated with starched tablecloths and heavy sauces, but rather the everyday ingredients that they fished from the sea, picked from their gardens, or bought at the local boulangerie, often consumed outdoors and always with friends.

The stories in the book are told in Fanny’s voice, followed by 84 pages of recipes, all lavishly illustrated by Ann Arnold. The overall feel of the large volume is that of a child’s travel journal, and the recipes vary widely in level of expertise, from a very simple plate of appetizers to the five-page recipe for bouillabaisse. All of Alice’s friends have different stories to tell, and readers will learn about French life, as well as different types of cuisine. Wine accompanies most of the meals, sometimes watered down for the children, although one story relates a vintner’s admiration for little Fanny’s excellent nose for wine.

This is a beautiful book for browsing. You and your children can dip in and out of the pages, feasting on the deep blues and sun-soaked yellows of the paintings, learning tid-bits of French culture, and trying out new dishes that will open your culinary horizons. Adult fans of Chez Panisse will enjoy tracing the origins of Alice Waters’ inspiration, perhaps quietly vowing to take their own children beyond fries and mac & cheese.

Bon appétit!

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

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Yvain: The Knight of the Lion, by M.T. Anderson and Andrea Offermann

yvainYvain is a pure-hearted knight of the Round Table in the legendary King Arthur’s court. One fine day, our gallant knight sets off to find adventure, but by simply pouring water on a rock, he lands in the center of a web of danger and magical spells.

I spent my teen years reading Chrétien de Troyes and other medieval writers, all because my adored older brother was studying the Middle Ages in graduate school. These adventurous tales are perfect for teens, as they are filled with fierce battles, love affairs, fateful choices, and strange magic. Unfortunately, they have been so popular over the years that they have been rewritten to the point that they are barely recognizable sometimes, and many readers have come to believe that these modern novels tell the real story.

M.T. Anderson is an award-winning writer for teens who seems to enjoy working in a new genre each time he publishes a title. While remaining true to this ancient story, he has chosen a very contemporary presentation: a graphic novel. It works brilliantly. Recalling the busy borders of illuminated manuscripts, artist Andrea Offermann packs information into her illustrations, portraying clothing, court life, dwellings, scriptoria, and even the magical monsters of the time. Religion played a major role in medieval life, and honor was paramount, neither of which is true of American life today, and this particular story also offers a window into the influence of women in the Middle Ages. Anderson and Offermann convey these cultural differences without comment within the story, although they each provide two pages of informative notes at the end.

Yvain: The Knight of the Lion is a perfect introduction to medieval literature for your kids twelve and up, and makes an excellent companion to any study of the Middle Ages.

Highly recommended and available in March, 2017.

Disclaimer: I read a highly-valued advance reader copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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