If Memorial Day is seen as the start of summer, why not get in the mood by thinking about what novels you might read this summer? Yes, plural. Everybody ought to enjoy good fiction, and summer months are a great time for many of us to enjoy some stories and even some poetry. I’m going to soon read a George Saunder’s collection of short stories — or so I tell myself today, but I have to finish the spectacular Tartt masterpiece The Goldfinch, not to mention the amazing memoir Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty — and we’re awaiting the forthcoming Wendell Berry poems (A Small Porch: Sabbath Poems 2014) releasing in a few weeks. How about you?
This isn’t a list of best books or must reads or all time fiction favorites, just some I grabbed off our shelf that I thought would be fun to tell you about. A few are fairly literary, a few less sophisticated, all fine choices, some very popular, some rather indie. Want some other novel, old or new? We can easily get almost anything that is in print, so do let us help you have a good stack of summer reads and beach books for these longer and hopefully slower days, designed, it seems, for getting immersed in enjoyable reading, page by page by page.
The order form links below will take you to our secure order form page. Happy reading!
The High Mountains of Portugal Yann Martel (Spiegel & Grau) $27.00 At first I couldn’t put this down, then it rather perplexed me, and then I was utterly captivated, and even a month later I can’t stop thinking about it. This is by the famous author of Life of Pi and it is essentially three inter-related stories, pitched (on the back) as A Quest, A Ghost Story, and A Mesmerizing Tale of Love and Loss. The three sections are captioned in the book as Homeless, Homeward, Home — itself intriguing, eh? The middle part is way weird, but not what I’d call ghostly; just magical realism, if you will. A guy walks backwards, there’s a search for an ancient crucifix from a disgraced missionary, learned about from a previously ignored diary found in a museum, there is a sad death, there is a simian, and the end offers a remarkable, homecoming resolution. Amazing.
Smoke Dan Vyleta (Doubleday) $27.95 I was glad our library had this as soon as it released this last week as it sounds to me like one of the most inventive novels in recent memory. The author is an esteemed historian and novelist and the advance word on this has been fabulous. (One reviewer says it is “one of the most original and enthralling books I have read in a long, long time.”) The plot seems complex — I just started it last night — but the premise is fantastical and intriguing: smoke arises from the bodies of people when they think bad thoughts; their inner lives of greed and lust and envy become known by all. (The idea from this, by the way, came from one specific sentence in a lesser known Charles Dickens novel who pondered what such a world would be like.)
Part Victorian morality tale, part Potter-esque fantasy writing, perhaps informed by the likes of provocative Philip Pullman, Smoke was described by Publisher’s Weekly as “a fiercely inventive novel.”
That review continues,
Vyvlet’s bold concept and compelling blend of history and fantasy offer a provocative reflection on the nature of evil, power, belief, and love. Dickensian in its imaginative scope and atmosphere.
Obviously, a question emerges about whether the pollution of the common (second hand?) smoke effects others. Can sin be contagious? (Can virtue? But I digress.) What becomes of those raised in a social environment that is, shall we say, smokey? Is this something like the impact of soma in Huxley?
Here’s another part, I think. What happens when some — the upper classes, of course — are able to go to school to learn out to adapt, to control their excreting of smoke? Can such persons start to look down their proverbial noses at others whose sins are more noticed? Is this, finally, a study of class, or is it a study of the making of Pharisees? Why not order this from us today?
The Secret Chord: A Novel Geraldine Brooks (Viking) $27.95 What a solid book to hold in your hands, in the back yard or at your outdoor coffee-shop or, in my wife’s scenario, before bed. She loved this artful and provocative re-telling of the David story, beautifully wrought and insightful — “unvarnished” the publisher says — from the admittedly imagined view of Nathan. You should know the Pulitzer Prize-winning Brooks at least from her People of the Book, which we also loved.
Of course, in dealing with a fictionalization from the Bible, the author is not going to please everyone. There is plenty on display here about David’s sensuality, his violence, even. (One reviewer somewhere used the phrase “alpha male personality.”) I am sure the talented Ms Brooks means no disrespect to her source materials. Like other tales of this ancient era think of The Red Tent, set in an even earlier period) there is much to learn, and great artists can help. It’s a novel, though, keep in mind. And apparently, a very thoughtful and entertaining one at that.
When Girls Became Lions: A Novel Valerie J. Gin & Jo Kadlecek (Gin/Kadlecek) $14.99 “The memory of a strong woman is a sanctuary…” This is how the story, set circa 1983, begins, in this self-published novel by a legendary and beloved soccer coach and a renowned writer of nonfiction and memoir. This is a story about soccer, about women’s sports, specifically about the impact of Title IX legislation had on one mid-western town.
Here is a description from the back cover:
It’s 1983. Teacher Bailey Crawford and a bunch of rag tag girls are about to make history as their school’s first, and only, state champions. But few in town care; they’re only girls, after all. It’s not until twenty-five years later in 2008 when new coach Reynalda Wallace discovers their story, and recognition for the champs finally arrives. In the process, Rey learns how much of her own life–past and present–is bound to those first athletes whose struggle she never knew existed. Until now.
The rave reviews of this book have come from men and women, sports analysis, coaches, professors, young people and not a few famous leaders (such as the President of Tuskegee University, women head coaches, women in the Olympic Hall of Fame, and more.)
Listen to this rave from Les Norman, former Jr. Olympic Gold Medalist, MLB outfielder, TV analyst and syndicated sports radio host. Authors Val & Jo were recently interviewed on his show, Breakin’ the Norm He says,
As an AVID sports fan and voracious reader, I search for compelling stories that will both move my heart and have the potential to change the world. I found those very things in When Girls Became Lions! I laughed, cried, grew angry at injustice, and cheered with joy. This is not only a book about the champion spirit that lies within female athletes, but the athlete in general . . .
Jo & Val have given the highest honor to the trailblazers of Title IX, to those of us who’ve been honored & blessed to wear an athletic uniform, and to athletes, coaches and parents of either gender who live out their passion by giving with all their heart. When Girls Became Lions brings about a triumph of the human spirit and resolve, and is now one of my favorite books of all time!! I highly recommend it for both female and male athletes alike!”
The Chimera Sequence Elliott Garber (Osprey Press) $15.99 I have been wanting to read this since I first heard about it from the proud papa of Elliott Garber, none other than Steve Garber, author of Hearts & Minds favs, Fabric of Faithfulness and Visions of Vocation. As you know from reading Steve, he is passionate about equipping folks to think about faith relating to all of life (including work, career, and our duties in the world) and that he, himself, uses novels to help open up conversations with consequence about life and times. I cannot think of a time I’ve heard Steve lecture or preach where he hasn’t cited stories, books, music, or films, and he and his librarian wife, Meg, raised their children around the very best books and films. I say all this to give you background and confidence that Elliott’s book emerges from a mature and thoughtful place.
And oh, what a place it is. Young Garber has been on active duty as a military officer who serves as a veterinarian. He has lived and worked with large animals in India, Egypt, Mozambique, and Italy (and traveled to over 50 other countries, including a recent deployment Iraq.) It is this global experience that informs this thriller — an action-packed work of science-fiction (or is it?)
Here is how the back cover explains it:
The story starts as Cole McBride makes a chilling discover while investigating a mysterious disease causing the death of endangered mountain gorillas in war-torn central Africa. When a humanitarian aid hospital nearby diagnoses a disturbingly similar human case, the former Special Forces veterinarian knows he must figure out how to stop this outbreak from spreading — before it blows up into a global pandemic.
And that, apparently, is just the beginning. The story moves from a massive cargo ship moving out of Sudan’s largest port which carries something headed for the Persian Gulf. A Lebanese restaurant owner in DC is involved, there is a plot worthy of House of Cards about an unpopular President and, well, you can imagine.
If you like thrillers based on real scientific research (well, at least the part about animal-spread diseases), this will be a winner for you. Maria Goodavage, herself a New York Times author of Soldier Dogs and Top Dogs, says, “I couldn’t put down Garber’s engaging, rapid-paced, action-packed thriller.”
Here is a great endorsement from James Rollins, author of the Sigma Force Novel, The 6th Extinction.
Elliott Garber’s debut thriller The Chimera Sequence has everything I love in a novel: great characters, a thrill ride of an adventure, and a looming global menace. But best of all, the story hooked me from the first intriguing page to the last illuminating line. I can’t wait to see what this guy writes next!
And, get this amazing quote, the sort any first-time novelist would be proud of:
“Not since Jurassic Park has a science thriller of this magnitude been written…” Wow.
That’s from Dr. Marty Becker who you may know as “America’s Veterinarian” and a respected, best-selling author.
I don’t know much about Ebola, and even less about Zika and their subsequent public health policies. We do quite a bit about the science and politics of Lyme and other tick-born diseases, which are only getting worse as they infect our geography and bodies and as the standard medical establishment refuses to keep up with vital research. You know that this stuff could keep you up at night, and maybe it should. Perhaps The Chimera Sequence and its fiction of global menace is merely something exciting to read for those who love that kind of an adrenaline-packed reading experience. Or maybe it is more, something we really should be thinking about, imagining, talking about. Kudos to Mr. Garber for releasing this important first novel, illustrating his own interest in eco-systems, public health, and helping us think about some of the biggest problems of our world. All in the form of a high-energy thriller.
This Is Why I Came Mary Rakow (Counterpoint) $24.00 I am, as I often am, taken with a book just by reading a review of it. Such was the case, I suppose, here. I hope to spend some slow hours with this later this summer, but we ordered it forthwith as soon as I read a remarkable book review of it in The Christian Century (here) by the always impressive Rev. Lawrence Wood. Here is how that review begins:
A woman comes for confession, her first in 30 years. Anxiously she fingers a hand-stitched notebook filled with her own version of Bible stories, driven by her reimaginings of biblical characters. We never learn exactly why she has written these fragments, although themes emerge–uneasy family relationships, physical disabilities, mental illness. Perhaps the woman’s own story shapes them. The stories are told slant, very slant, so the reader feels their gravity. But they truly engage the scriptures. They are luminous, numinous.
Her name is Bernadette. Like the visionary saint who saw the biblical Mary in Lourdes, France, in 1858, this Bernadette too is something of a cipher as she provides a link to the sacred. She does needlework like her namesake, shares the same infirmities, and wonders if she’s going mad. She herself may be a saint–barely.
Mary Rakow’s novel is just barely a novel. But in 62 brief chapters she manages to make familiar characters strange and fresh. They migrate from the Old Testament to the New, from the Bible to contemporary life, with the suggestion that they themselves may be authors…
So, the main character has a hand-stitched notebook full of Bible stories. (Does this seem like the famed collection found in Winesburg Ohio?)
Perhaps like that story, Wood suggests that That’s Why I Came is “miraculous” as in it “the lines between sacred history and contemporary life might be wonderfully blurred.”
Later in the review he notes that these rambling pieces written by the novel’s main character (Bernadette) are both fragmentary and complex; the writing of the novel itself tends to the poetic. It is, at times, raw and perhaps disturbing. This is, I should note, on a serious, literary publishing house (perhaps best known for publishing the novels of Wendell Berry.) Rev. Wood continues,
A lesser writer would have made this book a satire. Rakow, a theologian who studied at Harvard Divinity School and Boston College, instead has written with great love and deep faith, raising issues latent in the original text. Like Bernadette, Rakow seems to be sitting in church, hoping to find peace again.
The Abbey: A Story of Discovery James Martin SJ (HarperOne) $24.99 It is great to see this popular nonfiction author — who has written about Jesus, about humor (Between Heaven and Mirth), about the Jesuits, and more — trying his hand at fiction, and, wow, has it been successful. This is a major book this season, lots of buzz — one person likened it to Screwtape Letters (although another suggested The Shack.) It is notable for how it handles religious searching, grief, spirituality. (And it is, by the way, set in Pennsylvania.) The Abbey is getting lovely reviews. Imagine having these authors blurb your book on the back — Ron Hansen, Kathleen Norris, Richard Rohr, Joyce Rupp. It has gotten many endorsements like this, from memoirist and poet Mary Karr:
With trademark wit, wisdom, and elegant prose, James Martin has written a powerfully moving novel about (among other things) how an unbeliever can journey from suffering into spiritual practice. How it happens in an eyeblink. Another triumph from one of our best scribblers working like a master in a new form.
The Nightingale: A Novel Kristin Hannah (St. Marin’s Press) $27.99 The other day one of our staff paired this in a display with my favorite novel of recent years, All The Light You Cannot See. Not sure why, really, but the lovely, gold-embossed cover, is a rich and luscious one, and it calls out to be held. This is a serious, thick, and weighty novel, and it has been exclaimed about since it came out. Of course, it was displayed next to All the Light… because, it, too, is set in World War II — France in 1939 to be exact. As the description of it begins, “In love we find out who we want to be. In war we find out who we are.” This is an epic tale (Kristin Hannah is known for big and moving works of historical fiction) set in wartime France but about the divergent paths of two sisters. It is the sort of book that reviews claim to read in one sitting (although, at over 400 pages, I can hardly imagine.) I am sure at times it is harrowing, and it is said to be historically illuminating.
There are endorsements on the back from Lisa See (of popular best-seller Snow Flower) and Christina Baker Kline (author of the immensely popular and satisfying Orphan Train.) I appreciated this from Sara Gruen, author of Water for Elephants,
A beautifully written and richly evocative examination of life, love, and the ravages of war, and the different ways people react to unthinkable situations?not to mention the terrible and mounting toll of keeping secrets. This powerhouse of a story is equally packed with action and emotion, and is sure to be another major hit.
Thirteen Reasons Why Jay Asher (Razor Bill) $10.99 This is a powerful YA novel that an adult friend recently recommended. We knew of its immense popularity, hear the author on NPR, maybe, and knew of its significance.
Neither Beth nor I have read this yet — not sure if I am up for it, although I think I will. The plot is simple: a young girl named Hannah Baker took her life and left audio tapes behind, each for one of the 13 people who he saw as complicit in his death. (You can listen to the “actual” Hannah Baker Tapes at a youtube site made to go along with the book.) The book explores how these accusations and reports of petty cruelty effected Hannah, and how learning of this effected her friend Lay Jensen.
The reviews have been mostly stellar.
“Eerie, beautiful, and devastating” said the Chicago Tribune. “It will leave you with chills,” said Amber Gibson on All Things Considered. Words such as “shattering” and “anguishing” are understandably used by readers to describe it and yet it is also life-affirming and beautiful; the respected Kirkus called it “brilliant and mesmerizing.” It is known not only for the story, but for it’s moving prose. Thirteen Reasons has been named on many “best book” lists and garnered many awards. One line that most drew me in was the description by the wonderful YA novelist Sherman Alexi, who called it, “A mystery, eulogy, and ceremony.”
For what it is worth, some have suggested it isn’t realistic, that it does a disservice by not adequately exploring issues of adolescent mental health.
Two Steps Forward: A Story of Persevering in Hope Sharon Garlough Brown (IVP) $18.00 I have mentioned this before and it seemed right to name it again. Although it stands alone, it is a sequel to the popular Sensible Shoes, a novel which explores the emerging friendships of a group of women who meet at a spiritual retreat and agree to check back in with each other after their experiences with a spiritual director. Partly a story of women’s friendship, partly a set of stories of how faith helps us navigate live’s pains and challenges, and partially an observant report of what it is like having a wise spiritual director, this is a book that seems to be part novel and part spiritual guidebook. It is a story about what it means to be made in God’s image, discern wisdom, find grace, and what it looks like to grow into greater Christlikeness.
Both Sensible Shoes and Two Steps Forward center around Meg, a widow and recent empty nester, Chrissa, a conscientious graduate student (and, in the second — spoiler — an unexpected pregnancy), Hannah, a pastor, now on sabbatical, and Mara, a wife and mother who longs for her difficult family life to improve.
Sister Eve and the Blue Nun: A Divine Private Detective Agency Mystery Lynne Hinton (Nelson) $15.99 I don’t read mysteries, so don’t know which are better than others. There is this whole thing of clerical sleuths — think of Father Brown, at least. Hinton is a long-respected author in the world of inspirational fiction and is a New York Times best-selling author. This is just out, the third in a popular series — the first two were Sister Eve Private Eye and The Case of the Sin City Sister. In each, I gather, the good sister’s gifts for detective work might be seen as a calling, or a temptation. Eh? In this new one, it is set up like this: “After a murder at the monastery, Sister Eve may need a miracle if she is to prove a dear friend isn’t a cold-blooded killer.”
The “Blue Nun” bit figures in because the poisoned victim was Dr. Kelly Middlesworth, a researcher on the life and ministry of the 17th century revered “Blue Nun.” A set of irreplaceable historic documents have disappeared before they could even be examined.
Oh, did I mention that Sister Eve rides a motorcycle? So there’s that, too. Ha.
Lord of the World Robert Hugh Benson (Christian Classics) $15.95 I am embarrassed to say I have never heard of this novel, although I’ve learned a bit about the famous author and the significance of the tale.
Written in 1907, we are told in an introduction to this new edition that,
Lord of the World claims to be the first modern dystopia, preceding the more famous ones, Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell’s 1984 (1949). For academics, Lord of the World has always been a scholarly footnote of the Catholic literary renaissance that saw so many British intellectuals and artists like Benson convert to the Catholic faith in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
But here is something even more interesting; very interesting, indeed. It has been made known that Pope Francis has reported that this novel has significantly influenced his own thinking. Mark Bosco explains:
In a homily in November 2013, the Pope referred to Lord of the World when he warned about the dark side of globalization. Offering the term “beautiful globalization” as an expression through which national identity and traditions are preserved, he warned that this phenomenon can become the more sinister “globalization of hegemonic uniformity” that is found in Benson’s novel — a uniformity of secular thought born out of human vanity and worldliness.
In January 2015, as part of the Pope’s in-flight interview from Manila to Rome, he referred to the “ideological colonization” of international family-planning agencies and national governments that impose population control as a condition of development aid. Asked what he meant by the term, Pope Francis told the plane full of reporters, “There is a book, excuse me but I’ll make a commercial… it is a book that, at that time, the writer had seen this drama of ideological colonization, and wrote that book. It is called Lord of the World. The author is Benson… I advise you to read it. Reading it, you’ll understand well what I mean by ideological colonization …
I really enjoyed reading Bosco’s complete introduction to this just today. There is also a “theological reflection” essay and a bit about Benson’s conversion. This stuff helps, explaining why it is important. (And this cover gives it a bit more gravitas than the “Doomsday Classics” edition from Dover.) This intro is fascinating as it explores the rise of science fiction and dystopian, apocalyptic genre. (Just last night I was reading the recent Eerdmans release How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the World by Robert Joustra and Alisa Wilkinson. Ooo-boy.)
Apparently, Lord of the World by Robert Hugh Benson really is important, and apparently, it’s a rip-roaring read. It is said not only to be quite well-crafted but “a prophetic novel that anticipates and dramatically renders the spiritual and cultural crisis of the twenty-first century.”
Listen to the Tolkien scholar, Joseph Pearce, who commends this new edition:
Benson’s dystopic novel is more sinister than the simple hedonism of Huxley’s dystopia and more subtle than the sheer brutality of Orwell’s. I welcome Ave Maria Press’s new edition of this classic and prophetic work.
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