Heron River: A Novel by Hugh Cook (and a baker’s dozen other excellent summer novels.) ON SALE 20% OFF

In the last BookNotes column I noted that Alan Noble, in his new Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age, talks about how novels can be windows to deeper things, stories can engage our imaginations and create ways for us to think about the things that matter most. As I said, he is in line with what James K.A. Smith, drawing particularly on Charles Taylor and his massive philosophical study called The Secular Age, has said as well. Reading fiction is important for any number of reasons, not least is that it is one of the ways to help us think about and talk about important things with our friends and neighbors.

Of course one doesn’t need to read philosophical studies of the spirit of the age to know the power of novels. Cornelius Plantinga wrote a marvelous book a few years ago explaining in lovely detail why pastors and preachers should read widely. That was called Reading for Preaching: The Preacher in Conversation with Storytellers, Biographers, Poets, and Journalists (Eerdmans; $14.00)and for a while I went around calling him my patron saint. It’s for preachers, I suppose, but we recommend it to one and all. More recently our friend from Englewood Review of Books wrote Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish (IVP; $16.00) which explored the missional vision of reading widely, both fiction and nonfiction. Chris is a lover of words, tells about the value of poetry, and insists on the value and importance of reading novels, all for the sake of the Kingdom of God.

Maybe you have heard that there are three books coming out this fall about the joys of reading and offering book lists of all sorts. I was very moved by the serious and helpful Book Girl: A Journey Through the Treasures and Transforming Power of a Reading Life by the very smart and widely read Sarah Clarkson which is coming in early September from Tyndale ($15.99; you can pre-order it from us at our BookNotes 20% off, of course.) Further, we have an early version and can heartily recommend I’d Rather Be Reading:The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life by one Anne Bogel, a.k.a. the Modern Mrs. Darcy book blogger which you can also pre-order from us. It, too, is coming out early September 2018, published by Baker. It will sell for $14.95 and is a compact-sized hardback.

Most significantly, we have been encouraged by the many pre-orders of the forthcoming book by Karen Swallow Prior, On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books (Brazos; $19.99.) I hope you saw our BookNotes description of it a while back.

We are very happy to be hosting Karen here at the shop on Friday night, September 14, 2018. Please help us spread the word – if you love good literature, she will be sharing how both classics and contemporary novels can help us by shaping virtue. It’s going to be a good time and we are looking forward to the release of her book in early September and our book party here the 14th.


And so, yes, reading novels is an enjoyable sort of entertainment, a valuable way to spend some time that brings pleasure and insight; such art and entertainment can develop our empathy and give us new courage and deepen even hope, faith and love. Why not take these remaining summer months to read a few extra novels and why not buy one for a friend who needs a lift? It really could be a transforming, appreciated gift. We’ll even send it for you with a note tucked in if you’d like…


All of these are 20% off their regular prices. You can order them by using our secure order form page at the link below; just tell us what you want. We understand that some have scruples about books with course language or rough stuff. Not all are written from a viewpoint that is Christian. Not all of these are for everyone, naturally.

Still, these are all really good. Happy reading.

Heron River: A Novel Hugh Cook (Mosaic Press) $16.00 Hugh Cook is a novelist who has been known in the Dutch Reformed faith communities of Ontario for quite some time; I used to read him in a magazine called Vanguard decades ago and he has often read or lectured at the popular and widely esteemed Calvin College Festival of Faith and Writing. (That should nearly settle it; to be involved in that bi-annual event is a great marker for faith-informed writers. It is its own kind of recommendation.) Cook is a vivid writer and a great storyteller (and, I happen to know, a voracious reader of excellent literature, from Flannery O’Conner to Kent Haruf.) One of his previous novels earned a regional award in Canada and another has been adapted for the stage. He is Canadian writer that I wish was better known in the States.

Heron River is one of the most enthralling and captivating stories I’ve read all year and I want to highly recommend it. The back cover warns us that it is:

…a deeply moving exploration of human error and redemption, tragedy and triumph, set in the supposed safety of a small Ontario town. The novel poignantly confronts the necessary possibilities for human forgiveness and love amidst adversity.

I think that is a good summary of its emotional and religious themes, except maybe the part about triumph; there is satisfying resolution at the end, goodness, even, but I’d not call it triumphant. I did fight back tears and breathed deeply as I grinned at the beautiful ending but I’d be a little reluctant to use words like triumph or even redemption. It is deeply Christian and there is a scene of great redemption – I don’t want to spoil it – but it is overtly Christian and nuanced and realistic, so, indeed, there is this spiritual aspect that quietly comes to one of the main characters. (That it involved a boy in his Anglican church is itself oddly rare in many religious novels, it seems to me, and a wonderful part of the plot of Heron River.)

But let me be clear; much of this is ugly and hard and although it isn’t horror or true crime, there is a dark aspect to this, some criminal investigations and a few frightening scenes. I don’t read stories about savage crime and I don’t even really enjoy mysteries, so I suppose I was so struck by this because I’m not that familiar with what could easily turn too morbid. But Cook isn’t dreary or nihilistic, so even the awful stuff that happens – the near death of a child, a woman with increasingly troubling MS, a hard-to-handle character in a group home for the disabled, an aging Dutch father with dementia in a nursing home, a senseless murder and vile vengeance – wasn’t overwhelming for this sensitive reader. But it is a robust story of sin and anguish and shame and considerable hardships.

But it is also a beautiful book –a very beautiful book. The opening pages about a woman starting her day, cutting rhubarb from her moist garden as she prepares a pie for a church event, is just so gorgeously rendered it assured me this was going to be a very pleasurable, artful read. When the horrific hits, it is also appropriately described. Cook is a skilled craftsman of words and a mature writer and it shows.

Here’s a fun thing about Cook’s genius in telling this story: different characters have different ways of speaking and his writing style transfigures from elegant to blunt, from complex to long, goofy, run-on sentences that go on and on as some inarticulate folk tend to do. It didn’t take too long to realize this device and when those breathy, nearly stupidly long sentences from those characters began, I took a deep breath and went along for the ride. What fun.

There is an important aspect of the story that is set in a group home for the mentally challenged and a few kind and strong caregivers at the house. Part of the book is told through the experiences of Adam, a resident of the home and it is unlike anything I’ve ever read. The description of the house and the various sorts of handicapping conditions of the young adult residences rang very true. Again, it was weighty, moving, poignant, but also a very enjoyable experience, reading such a well-told story with so many deeply human angles.

Cook doesn’t overplay the role of the beautiful blue Herons that occasional appear in the river that plays such a role in the story. You’ve heard of the “wrong side of the tracks”? In a way, there are two communities in play here, on different sides of the river; one is suburban and seemingly safe and the other side houses folks in poorer homes, including a Native population. One of the First Nation characters is a major voice in the story as he teaches the somewhat brain-damaged Adam some Indian creation stories and pays him for his manual labor. Why was I afraid this would not be the case? Who are the forces for redemption in a story with such brokenness and whose characters have such foibles? How are healing and hope experienced when there are such fierce bonds among families (especially when some families are so broken?)

How does beauty figure in and what is the symbolic meaning of the majestic scene with the heron near the end? I get choked up even thinking about it, and I hope you do to.

To be candid, this is a book intentionally informed by Christian worldview and written by a man known, I suspect, as a Christian writer (although the independent publishing house is not.) Two churches figure into the story, as does a beautiful moment of reading a Psalm from an old Dutch Bible. However there is rough language, some sexual banter, lots of cussing from the characters who appear and some violence. Perhaps it will be a bit much for your taste. Interestingly, I know an evangelical pastor who featured it in his church as a book club title because he wanted to talk about it with his parishioners. Read Heron River by Hugh Cook and you might want to talk about it, too. We are thrilled to recommend it and hope you like it as much as I did.

There There: A Novel Tommy Orange (Knopf) $25.95 This is a complex novel comprised of many interlocking characters who are all urban Native peoples (and it, too, for the record, has characters who use the F word a lot.) So much of contemporary fiction about American Indians is set on the rez and There There breaks new ground, set in the rough streets of inner city Oakland CA. It is vulgar and written with, as one reviewer put it, “A rush of intensity and fervor… bursting with talent and big ideas… Funny and profane and conscious of the violence that runs like a scar thorough American culture.” Ron Charles calls is “Masterful… White-hot. A devastating debut novel.” It has been described in extraordinary ways; Margaret Atwood says it is “astonishing” and Dwight Garner in the New York Times writes of his “Bravura… There There has so much jangling energy and brings so much news from a distinct corner of American life that it’s a revelation. Its appearance marks the passing of a generational baton.”

I am not sure why I couldn’t put it down. It was excellently, passionately written; the characters were all so very intriguing (and most all pretty different.) There was the device of going back to earlier parts of the main characters lives so there was some sort of epic, intergenerational thing going on (including a sub-plot about how some of the American Indian Movement radical activism perhaps influence the younger children of adult activists.) So much going on, so many new insights and experiences about which I’ve never read. It really was a troubling, moving read – with a non-fiction forward about Native people’s history that is itself nearly worth a literary prize for extraordinary prose.

The Solace of Water: A Novel Elizabeth Byler Younts (Thomas Nelson) $15.99 Several of our staff have just adored this fascinating story that gives a very thoughtful and unexpected twist on the “Amish” fiction genre. Younts lives in Central Pennsylvania and the novel is set in the 1950s in a rural community in Pennsylvania. The well-written plot revolves around two women in great grief – an African American woman who has moved North from the Jim Crow South and a local Amish woman. They initially bond over their losses – both have lost children (and in one case, water was involved.) The author believes that it is “eminently relevant to the beauty and struggle in America today.” What a lovely, thoughtful, serious and eloquent book – Beth was very taken with it and has been telling others!

The Cloister: A Novel James Carroll (Nan Talese/Doubleday) $27.95 You may know Carroll as a left-wing Catholic who has written widely about mendacity and complicity and corrupt money in our public lives. He has called the church to greater commitments to integrity and justice. He also, by the way, wrote one of the most moving memoirs I have ever read, An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us for which he won the American Book Award in 1996. (That book, by the way, eloquently tells of his increasing involvement in the anti-Viet Nam war movement even as his father was a strategist for the war at the Pentagon and family friends with President Johnson’s family. It is one of the important books in my life and my dad and I talked about it deeply.) The Cloister is Mr. Carroll’s first novel and it is a modern-day re-working of the famous medieval illicit love story of Aberlard and Heloise – set in the The Cloisters in New York City. (Ha – bet you didn’t see that coming.) Nicholas Delbanco says it is “wonder-filled” and another reviewer says it is an “enlightening, vitally important book, a necessity for our time.” There are overlapping narrative arcs (the lovers are a Catholic priest and a French Jewish woman) as the story moves from the Nazi holocaust to the Crusades to the “startling mysteries of prejudice, brutality, and love.” One writer compared it to All the Light We Cannot See and another says, “like all the best fiction, it commandeers the reader’s heart.” I am really looking forward to it.

Little Fires Everywhere Celeste Ng (Penguin Press) $27.00 Am I the only literate person left in North America who hasn’t read this yet? Beth loved it and lots of folks are talking about it so if you have been dragging your feet on this, why not order it now? It is, as you may know, a much-acclaimed work about family, a deeply empathetic reflection on the perplexities of our lives. Terry McMillan says she is a “powerful and poignant writer” and Jodi Picoult says “I read Little Fires Everywhere in a single, breathless sitting.” Set in Shaker Heights, a rich suburb outside of Cleveland, Little Fires Everywhere is about “the weight of secrets, the nature of art and identity, and the ferocious pull of motherhood.”

Ng is known for exploring the experiences of Asian Americans (as in her stunning debut Everything I Never Told You) and a sub-plot includes a debate about a white family attempting to adopt a Chinese baby and how the potentially adopting parents are or aren’t aware of the complexities of such things. Little Fires has been called “witty” and “wise” and “tender” and “engrossing.” Let’s read it!

Everything I Never Told You Celeste Ng (Penguin) $16.00 Beth tell us that in her opinion Everything… is even better than the excellent Little Fires Everywhere. Again, it is a deep and heartfelt portrait of a family. Full of pathos about the mysterious death of a teen, it might be compared to The Lovely Bones The Los Angeles Review of Books noted that “Ng moves gracefully… creating a series of mysteries and revelations that lead back to the original question: what happened to Lydia. Masterful.” It is “wonderfully moving, a beautifully crafted study of dysfunction and grief that will resonate with anyone who has ever had a family drama.” A thoughtful and passionate Christian friend who is Asian American and speaks of the challenges of growing up as a minority in these times quipped once that folks should read this because “it explains everything.”

Behold the Dreamers: A Novel Imbolo Mbue (Random House) $17.00 We have mentioned this before as it has won bunches of awards and been listed on “best book” lists by everyone from NPR to The New York Times Book Review, Kirkus Reviews and more. The Times review called it “capacious and big hearted” and another reviewer said it “plumbs the desires and disappointments of our emerging global culture.” As an Oprah Book Club selection, you can imagine it is compassionate and stirring, offering a window into the lives of immigrants. In the story, Jende Jonga and his wife, Neni, are Cameroonian immigrants living in Harlem with their six-year-old son; Jende gets a job as a chauffeur for a senior executive at Lehman Brothers and Neni works for the same family in their summer home in the Hamptons. This is set in 2007 as Lehman Brothers is collapsing, so, well, wow.

The Leavers Lisa Ko (Algonquin) $15.95 This remarkable book is beautifully written and ambitious and was a just deserved National Book Award Finalist. It also won the PEN award and the Bellwether Prize for Fiction which was created by Barbara Kingsolver for socially conscious novels. (Aside: we are taking pre-orders for the much-anticipated Barbara Kingsolver novel called Unsheltered which releases October 16.)

The Leavers is about 11 year old Deming Guo whose mother, an undocumented Chinese immigrant working in a nail salon, goes missing. Deming is adopted by a well-meaning white couple who changes his name to Daniel. The book is told from the perspectives of both the child Daniel and missing mother, Polly. In O, The Oprah Magazine, she says “Here is imperative reading: a vivid fictional exploration of what it means to belong and what it feels like when you don’t. Ko gives us an unsparing portrait of the resilience and grit it takes to risk everything to break free of tradition and start over in a foreign land.” People called it “dazzling.”

and Beulah: A Sequel to Jabbok Kee Sloan (Peake Road/Mercer University Press) $18.99 each Sometimes we discover lesser known sources for good books, publishers of independent spirit but high quality. University Presses are usually brilliant, but often price themselves out of the market, so to speak, or are just too scholarly or obscure. Here are two very fine, very accessible novels published by the literary imprint of Mercer University Press; I bet you’ve never heard of them. They are, as you might expect from a publisher in Macon Georgia, rooted in deep Southern culture, and they are a genuine delight. In the first book, Jabbok, Buddy Hinton, a young boy who lives in the country outside of Vicksburg Mississippi, meets Jake,

an older, black fisherman, ex-convict, former tent preacher – and their friendship deepens. It captures the late 50s boyhood of the south (including a serious lot about racism and other sorrows.) I think you will be hooked by the first sentence and the first moving paragraph of the Prelude.

We were happy after ordering Jabbok to learn that the late, great Phyllis Tickle was an advocate for these books.

Listen to what Phyllis wrote about Jabbok:

I love this book. I am a writer and I am supposed to be able to say something elegant and impressive about a book, not something so cliché as, ‘I love this book.’ I just know I want to read Jabbok one more time, which is what I knew the last time I finished reading it. I love this book.

By the start of the second story, Beulah, Buddy Hinton is a newly ordained Episcopal priest serving a small congregation in Mississippi. Here is what the Reverend says about the second novel, Beulah:

This is the story of my continuing education, in different classrooms, with three new teaches: JoJo McCain, John Cahill, and especially and most wonderfully, Beulah Grace Bayer.

I suppose it isn’t fair to invoke the name Wendell Berry or Jayber Crow; I shouldn’t compare it to the popular Father Tim stories of the sweetly named Mitford series but maybe these might appeal to those who love such tender stories of rural and small town life. The Rt. Rev. John McKee Sloan is Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama. He went to seminary at the University of the South in Sewanee and was ordained to bishop suffragan in 2008. He and his wife both grew up in the Mississippi Delta.

Not that it matters much, but it is very interesting to me that in the second book, Buddy Hinton works in a summer camp for campers with disabilities; in the acknowledgements, Rev. Sloan says that he did this in the early 70s. As you may know, Beth and I ourselves both worked at Camp Harmony Hall, run by the Easter Seal Society in the early and mid-70s. No wonder I liked this guy! Let’s help get the stories of Jabbok and Beulah become better known. Who knows, maybe Sloan is writing a third…

Caroline: Little House, Revisited Sarah Miller (William Morrow) $15.99 We announced this when it was out in hardback and we’re glad it’s now in a more affordable paperback edition. Beth adored it, but not everyone will, we suppose. It is, in fact, an imaginative re-telling of the Little House stories from the point of view of Ma. Isn’t that a great idea? It is impeccably researched and was authorized by Little House Heritage Trust and is very well done.

Caroline is surely one of America’s most famous frontier women and this is a fabulous look at her inner life. Sarah Miller has written historical nonfiction and several historical fiction works and it is Beth’s sense that she knows what she’s doing and she really got Caroline right. She talked about it as she was reading it, day after day – what fun! As Refinery20 put it, “Little House on the Prairie fans, prepare to fall in love with your favorite characters all over again.”

The Day the Angels Fell and The Edge of Over There Shawn Smucker (Revell) $17.99 We wanted to suggest at least something in the “speculative fiction” genre and for those that like fantasy – and have already finished the must-read Steve Lawhead, In the Region of the Summer Stars, Book One of the Eirlandia series) – these two are among the best of the year. Shawn is a well-respected writer and a great guy.

The Day the Angels came out to great acclaim last year; it remains in hardback ($17.99) but is also now available in paperback ($14.99.) One of the all-time great compliments was given to Mr. Smucker when the well-read and always astute Anne Bogel (of the Modern Mrs. Darcy blog) described The Day the Angels Fell as “Neil Gaiman meets Madeleine L’Engle.”

Foreword Reviews wrote of it:

The otherworldly and the mundane collide in Shawn Smucker’s The Day the Angels Fell, a humanizing tale of cosmic proportions.

Yep, this is supernatural fiction (of cosmic proportions, no less) that another reviewer curiously compared to Ray Bradbury. You see, this really is thoughtful Christian fantasy fiction at its finest.

The new one, The Edge of Over There, is just out (in a fantastic hardback design for $17.99), a fine sequel that itself has gotten good reviews. Here’s the official summary:

When Abra Miller goes to New Orleans Cemetery No. 1 to search for the Tree of Life, she discovers a city teetering on the edge of chaos, people desperate for a way out, and an enemy intent on enslaving the human race.

We are very pleased to announce that author Shawn Smucker will be visiting our store in mid October to do some readings from these two novels, talk a bit about writing (and tell us about a book that will be out then about his work with refugee resettlement in Lancaster, PA. The book about that, Once We Were Strangers: What Friendship with a Syrian Refugee Taught Me About Loving My Neighbor is due out October 16, 2018.) You should know this author; it won’t be the last you’ve heard of him, I promise. Why not pick up both The Day the Angels Fell and The Edge of Over There. If you get the first in hardback they’ll match nicely.

Anatomy of a Miracle: A Novel* Jonathan Miles (Hogarth $27.00 I hope you know this fascinating, talented author who has been widely reviewed and critically acclaimed. I gave a shout out about how intriguing this book was before I read it and now that I’ve spent many pleasurable days immersed in its captivating story I can say it is one of my favorite books of the year. Miles has always been a social critic who seems familiar with questions of faith and religion. (See his acclaimed Dear American Airlines and especially Want Not.) This recent novel is equally rich in themes that matter.

Anatomy of a Miracle tells of an Afghanistan vet who is a paraplegic, wounded warrior, in a wheelchair, who is mysteriously and unexpectedly healed on his way to get smokes at a run-down, inner city convenience store called the Biz-E-Bee run by an enterprising and funny Vietnamese family in post-Katrina Biloxi, Mississippi. Any number of zealots, reporters, medical specialists and military officials want to know what happened and what ensues is a circuitous and complex set of investigations to determine if miracles occur, and if so, if this qualifies for one. There are utter secularists, faith healers, scientists, and a Vatican official who has reasons to need to know if this blue-collar vet is pulling off a hoax, especially when a reality TV show documents his sometimes unsavory lifestyle.

I have rarely read a mainstream, popular novel so course and so touching, so profane and yet fluent in Christian apologetics, so aware of the complexities of faith in a secular age. I couldn’t put it down and, even now, wish the character Cameron Harris and his sister and long lost lover well. That’s part of what a good novel does – helps us care about the characters. I think that might make us better people, but I suppose that would be a miracle that’s hard to prove, too. Regardless, we’ve staked our careers on it: stories matter. This is a fascinating one that is very well told and which raises tons of vital questions and I think would make a great book club selection. Kudos.


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