We’re sorry this edition of BookNotes was a bit delayed. Maybe you saw at the Hearts & Minds Bookstore Facebook page that Beth took a tumble while working at an off site gig (she lugs a lot of book boxes and is the packing queen, organizing the van) and suffered a pretty severe concussion. And then my mom, Betty Borger, rather unexpectedly died; we are almost too sad to think. She was 93 and used to work in the bookstore herself (behind the counter and, for a while, in our mail-out department.) She liked simple, religious novels, so in a way, this one goes out for her. Buy some books and smile!
Thanks to those who expressed appreciation for our last BookNotes on memoirs. I named dropped a bunch of older ones we’ve enjoyed or have sold well in the past and named 10 more recent releases for your own summer reading. If you missed that, we encourage you to scroll back at the BookNotes archives at our Hearts & Minds website and see my apologetic for reading memoirs, especially to widen your horizon and nurture empathy for other fallen people made in God’s image with whom we share the planet. What a great opportunity we have to experience the pleasures of good writing as we look over the shoulder, as it were, of folks narrating their lives, telling their story, showing us how they connected the dots (or don’t) of their life time. I’m a big van of memoir and the ones I mention in passing and the ones I actually reviewed might be helpful for you as you build your library, select books for your book club or reading group. We have heard that a few of these that customers have purchased from us have made their way into vacation suitcases, beach bags, and backpacks, even, for campers wanting a book to read by the trail or lake. How gratifying to get to fill those kinds of orders. Happy reading!
If reading memoirs is a fun way to see how good writers craft sentences as they tell (true) stories, then novelists give us a different kind of related, literary experience. Read mostly for entertainment and at our leisure, we glean so much from fiction. This is not the place to rehearse all that, but we have a whole section in the Dallastown shop which we call “books about books.” Serious literature criticism, memoirs about reading, and Christian arguments for reading widely abound. (I suppose you know we have often mentioned and featured Karen Swallow Prior’s lovely memoir of her own early years by way of the books she read, a great read called Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me and had her in the store last fall to do a presentation on her must-read book on character formation called On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books.
Our selection of novels in the store is large, but limited to what our mostly religious, York County customer base wants. I wish we had more robust sales of fiction and wish we had more room to display even more than we do. Besides lots of inspiring fiction published by Christian publishing house – their releases have changed a lot since my mom fell in love with the inspirational prairie novels of Janette Oke — we carry our share of New York Times fictional mega-best-sellers, like When Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens and the new, layered, Elizabeth Gilbert novel City of Girls, set in the tawdry glamour of 1940s New York theatre district (which Beth liked, even though it was fairly graphic in its description of sexuality, a racy feature some will not appreciate.) We feature important ones, especially, such as Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered (which we both loved!) or the latest by award winning Moroccan-born, American novelist, Laila Lalami, The Other Americans, a crime novel revealing much about immigration, and, of course, the brand new (very, very heavy) The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead, who wrote last year’s amazingly well done, Pulitzer Prize Winner, The Underground Railroad (which is now out in paperback.) None of us have read it yet, and it may be too gruesome for some tastes, but this NPR interview with Mr. Whitehead and a former resident of the Dozier School for Boys in Florida (where the book is mostly set) and an investigative journalist who has studied the despicable place for decades, will explain it’s importance. Unbelievable.
Do you know the work of Miriam Toews, a Canadian with a Mennonite past who writes socially engaged, serious fiction such as her recent Women Talking? It is about sexual abuse within strict Amish-like communities and gained some fame when none other than Margaret Atwood tweeted, “This amazing sad, shocking, but touching novel, based on a real-life event, could be right out of Handmaid’s Tale.” Another writer called it “an astonishment, a volcano of a novel…” and Laura Van Den Berg says it is a “flawless, ferocious work of art.”
The last few years have seen some excellent books to widen our range of books by people of color such as Everything I Never Told You (by Celeste Ng) and Behold the Dreamers (by Imbolo Mbue) and the provocative There, There by Tommy Orange, a raw, creatively written contemporary story about urban Native Americans. I reviewed it here last summer, and it is now out in paperback. I’ll be you’ve never read anything like it!
Whenever I share a new list of new fiction, I feel a need to note that reading older novels is fine, too. Most who have read the most recent Virgil Wander (by Leif Enger) truly enjoyed it, even if it doesn’t surpass his phenomenally beloved Peace Like a River, which came out in 2001 and which you should definitely read.
Among our store’s perennially recommended ones include the novels of Wendell Berry (start with Jayber Crow or Hannah Coulter), Marilyn Robinson (read them in order, Gilead, Home, and Lila, and then jump back to her first, Homecoming, a very different sort of story offered in a few different sort of intense, creative prose.) For sheer joy and amazing writing and spectacularly curious stories, don’t miss The River Why and The Brothers K, by James David Duncan. One is about fishing, the other baseball; the first very funny, the second a lot of fun, but with a more painful plot. And pray that he gets the long-awaited next one done!) And I personally adore the early novels of Barbara Kingsolver, like Pigs in Heaven. You can read a few other favorites I’ve mentioned at BookNotes in the past HERE, HERE, or HERE or HERE.
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Fallen Mountain Kimi Cunningham Grant (Amberjack Publishing) $14.99 We were alerted to this indie press book by a good friend of ours, a discerning reader and good writer herself who is a friend of the author. (Hey, Erica Young Reitz, we even saw how you are thanked in the acknowledgments for helping the author think through the ending.) Ms Grant is a central Pennsylvania native and attended Messiah College. She has won numerous poetry awards and received a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellowship grant, so is obviously a young writer to pay attention to. And she is, indeed, a good storyteller, has a way with words, and can craft good, good pages that draw out her characters. This slow, building plot set in the mountains of North Central PA.
I am drawn to stories set in small towns that honor the uniqueness’s of rural life, and Fallen Mountain, indeed, does. (There is a small subplot that is very realistic about how the fracking industry destroys woodlands and mountain streams in a way that many conservationists and hunters find dismaying. (Shades of the must-read Pulitzer Prize winning non-fiction work, Amity and Prosperity.) Although Grant’s story isn’t overtly about environmental themes or a diatribe against fast-paced modernity, there is a small touch of Wendell Berry in her approach. The small town sheriff, wanting to retire, and his friendships with those who work a well-described local farm is pleasant and generous and, I suspect, plenty realistic. Anyone who likes the woods (hiking, hunting, or lumbering) will appreciate her good descriptions and the significant plot twist about protecting the land from, well… I don’t want to say too much. If you know the forests of Pennsylvania, you can imagine.
The plot revolves around a character who has disappeared, maybe murdered (or maybe not), so it is a bit of a mystery, with the twists and turns that sometimes accompany such a whodunit. But, more, like the best suspense stories, there is a deeper, more important project unfolding, that of exploring place and relationships, romance and regret, hard times and the search for some kind of meaning; redemption, even.
I can’t give too much away other than to suggest that Fallen Mountain is a fine early book by a rising author, a fascinating setting and plot, with lots to enjoy and lots to smile about and also some hard stuff which causes us to ponder much about this fallen world. Big hot shots from out of town figure as almost bad guys and there are good glimpses into hurts that arise from childhood bullying to opioid addictions, all very real issues in the lives of those in small towns where memories endure as people learn to live together over the longer haul of their lives. This book gives us an entertaining window into these daily dramas, follows the quandaries of a few key characters and brings home a captivating story with an ending that will leave you closing the book with satisfaction.
Light from Distant Stars Shawn Smucker (Baker) $14.99 I so badly want to explain what we like about this great new book, and have so much to say. Since the death of my mother, this book that opens in a funeral home and is largely about the relationship of a son and his deceased father, is more poignant for me than I knew when I started this review almost a month ago. I have carefully read this fascinating, entertaining, curious novel, written about it, erased it all, tried to re-write a better review, participated in a book release event party (sponsored by the author’s Lancaster friends The Row House Forum and Square Halo Gallery) and have pondered it over and over again. It means a lot to me this summer and we would be very happy if you ordered it from us so you can join in the buzz.
For starters, as we have said before, Shawn Smucker is a fine writer, a friend of Hearts & Minds, and a truly decent guy; he received great acclaim for two very well-written YA fantasy novels (The Day the Angels Fell and The Edge of Over There that we have highly recommended) and an inspiring (dare I say necessary) memoir Once We Were Strangers about his friendship with a Syrian refugee in his hometown of Lancaster, PA. He’s co-written a few biographies too, so has been honing his artful writing chops since his days as a lit major in the good program at Messiah College.
Light from Distant Stars is an apropos title as one of the characters in the story has a fascination with this notion that we see light that left their respective stars a million years ago; stars that perhaps now may be long gone from the galaxy. He doesn’t explore any didactic meaning to this fact, but it lingers, hanging in the air and as I reader I wondered why. It’s a moving metaphor, allusive and suggestion-rich (as Calvin Seerveld might put it) and hints at deeper things going on in this wild story.
Deeper things? How about Stranger Things? (I haven’t even seen that pop-culture TV phenomenon, but the lined worked. Ha.) This new book offers some pretty stranger things. It is set in a town (like Lancaster?) and rural areas nearby. The main character, Cohen Morah, works, unhappily, in his father’s undertaking business. (A fun aside: Shawn has told me he is a good friend with feisty funeral parlor owner and author Caleb Wilde, who he thanks in the acknowledgments. I hope you know his book Confessions of a Funeral Director: How the Business of Death Saved My Life.) On the first page, Cohen’s father is dead on the floor of the embalming room and Cohen wonders if he killed him. So there’s that.
The book is not terribly gruesome, but as somewhat of a kinda murder mystery, there’s a tiny bit of disturbing description. Much of the book is set in flashback — stuff that happened a long time ago, that we’re just seeing now? – and Cohen’s father, an undertaker who used to be a preacher named Calvin, play baseball together. The beautiful description of young Cohen in a hot evening church service is captured wondrously and the domineering, cold, religious mother comes across painfully. Although it isn’t overly intense, there are shades of the likes of Pat Conroy or others who write about dysfunctional families here as Smucker explores the dissolution of a family and hints at the brokenness that ensues.
My family was healthy and safe and good (Beth and I both daily are grateful for the wholesome setting we were given by our decent, middle-class families and as we grieve the loss of my mom this week, we recall that intensely) but I was deeply moved by Smucker’s gentle explorations of a religious family broken in so many ways. Cohen’s good sister, his bitter mother, his father trying at another shot at redemption in his later years, his slow, lingering death in the hospital, all weave in and out of the story which is loaded with interesting plot turns, odd-ball characters (wait til you meet the mysterious street kids Than and Hippy) and includes moments of sheer genius.
That Cohen, during the long hospitable vigil, sneaks out at night, walking to a nearby Episcopal church to find a late-night priest to whom he can confess his sins, illustrates the plausible way faith – by which I guess I mean sin and redemption, fear and hope, trauma and healing, the search for resolution and the forging of meaning in memory and moving forward – is quite naturally woven into this story of darkness and light. And a story of light it is. Light amidst some very real darkness.
There’s a bit of surreal stuff that is a major part of the story as Light from Distant Stars slips into what the fancy-pants critics might call “magical realism.” That is, this isn’t a fantasy novel (there are no Hobbits or wizards or talking, Narnian-like creatures), not a supernatural thriller (although some might describe it that way since there are moments of mysterious spookiness) but there is some inexplicable weirdness (imagined or real?) with a bit of a blur between what is actual and what may not be. There is a force, a cloud, a Beast – think of the “smoke monster” from Lost — that soon enough we realize represents something utterly pernicious, something mentioned in only a passing paragraph but is achingly significant. A burning horror is in the book significantly, and it adds some gonzo oddness that, for me at least, was fun and captivating, making this more than a dour story of family sin and interior struggle. I am not a fan of this device, usually, but that damn thing came to intrigue me and kept me turning the pages, trying to figure out what the heck was going on.
Near the end there is another huge plot turn and a new character shows up – not his grumpy mother, not his healed-up sister, not his new priest friend, not his elementary school baseball playing girlfriend now turned detective, or his flashback dear, now dying, dad. It’s a kid in the hospital and I won’t give away what happens in this crazy episode, but it is a tad over the top. I liked it, and the images of how that whole thing plays out in what I assume is Lancaster General Hospital is the sort of rising action that made me almost stand up and cheer. I won’t spoil it – but, again, Light From… isn’t a ponderous or overly dour study of the human condition, but a great, entertaining read, full of plot and character and light and goodness and a batch of surprises that keeps coming and coming. Who thinks up stuff like this?
At the release party for Light from Distant Stars held at the Square Halo Gallery in downtown Lancaster, the articulate, profound, delightful, non-fiction writer Christie Purifoy (you must read her fabulous Placemaker: Cultivating Places of Comfort, Beauty, and Peace) interviewed Smucker about his new novel. Christine read an excerpt from her book — gorgeous prose poetically delivered, about, well, about decay. (Okay, it was about homemade kombucha and sauerkraut.) Entropy, decay, death. Can we control such forces? Is there hope in the ruins? Her reading set up Shawn to talk soberly about his own book, and his own fascination with these things, about death and history and hope. In those moments, this spiffy thriller about smoke monsters and baseball and sinning pastors and reconciliation with stern mothers and careers and callings and confessions all took an even deeper turn, and I realized more of the genius of this fun, easy to read, (but well-crafted) curiously profound story. The late night confessions and hymn singing and deeply rendered loneliness spires downward and outward and light shows up, light that the Bible tells us reveals all. Light that John 1 tells us the darkness cannot overcome.
Whether you want a fast-paced and very entertaining thriller or an allusive reflection on families and regret, shame and healing, whether you want a murder mystery or a tender tale of death and birth, Light from Distant Stars is a great read, perfectly described by somebody as “eerie and enchanting.” I doubt if Smucker is considering a sequel, but I want to know more about Cohen Marah, his old friend Ava, his sister Kaye out near Philly, and maybe even the sexy Miss Flynne. And what the heck happens with Thatcher after, well, after that?
The Overstory Richard Powers (Norton) $18.95 Good friends who read a lot of contemporary fiction kept telling about this and we watched as some smart customers bought it and it was increasingly mentioned on literary blogs and appeared on “best of” lists in newspapers and journals all over the country. This was before it won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize. Beth eagerly picked it up this Spring and found it to be one of the most beautifully crafted works she has read in ages. She has a good eye for good writing and was so taken by some passages she put little Post-it notes on certain pages to read them out loud, later. What writing! What an artful, respected piece of modern fiction.
I cannot say too much about the plot, but it is complex and fascinating. In the shortest of annotations we might say it is about trees. And about how in God’s creation the inter-working aspects of reality cohere. (Do trees really talk to each other as another best-seller has documented? Do they “clap their hands” as the Bible says?) In this novel, they indeed do, and more.
So, yes, what you may have heard, that this is a green, tree-hugger story, is true, but it is so much more. Although (Lord have mercy) we need to care about trees and climate change and environmental stuff, and be brave in protecting the Earth God gave us to care for, and maybe good fiction is the way to motivate us to care more. (It may be that that is increasingly the case, that a good story can be more persuasive and formative than several didactic lectures.)
Evangelical MD turned environmentalist Matthew Sleeth recently wrote Reforesting Faith: What Trees Can Teach Us About God and if you’re not up for Mr. Power’s strikingly imaginative story about trees, read Sleeth, first, and then read Overstory. Or, if you find the beauty and power of a fictional story about trees and greed and conflict and life and death to be deeply compelling, then read Power’s novel first, then the non-fiction Reforesting Faith next.) In any event Richard Powers is a gifted writer, an astonishing storyteller, and his drama is thick and engaging. It’s a beauty of a book.
I might add that The Overstory actually isn’t all about trees and saving the bioregion. One major character has a severe disability and finds it exceptionally difficult to navigate the material world, so he enters – vividly, with extraordinary detail – a parallel universe on line. Some of this big story raises questions about the reality of virtual reality, the experience of (and ethics of?) so-called digital culture. What is really real in this story of life we all live? This book is gorgeously done and surely unforgettable. Powers is, as he has been before in his other highly regarded novels, simply dazzling.
“Monumental…A gigantic fable of genuine truths.”
“The best novel ever written about trees, and really just one of the best novels, period.”
“This book is beyond special… it’s a kind of breakthrough in the ways we think about and understand the world around us, at a moment when that id desperately needed.”
Shades of Light Sharon Garlough Brown IVP) $18.00 I have written about this before and a few interested customers were eager to pre-order it. We just got it into the store last week, a bit ahead of the scheduled mid-August release, and we’ve sent it out to those who have already ordered it. You may recall that I touted it as a realistic spiritual story that moved me, surprisingly so.
The author, Rev. Garlough Brown, is in real life an ordained clergywoman and a certified spiritual director near Grand Rapids who has written a series of easy-to-read Christian novels about the process of spiritual direction, with episodes of the stories unfolding in retreat centers, among folks struggling with spiritual disciplines, lingo drawn from, maybe, the sorts of folk who read Richard Rohr or walk the labyrinth, who are active church congregants, wanting a transformative, engaged spirituality, who maybe are learning about discerning God’s work in their lives day by day, learning the monastic practices of solitude and silence and are trying out the examen. Or they try to. These four “Sensible Shoes” novels (each published by IVP) are a delight because there isn’t much popular storytelling about those sorts of topics or characters who take up intentional spiritual practices.
Well, this new one is about an idealistic, young adult social worker, whose name is Wren, who is burned out and has a break-down, struggling, as we come to learn, with serious, clinical depression. Her Aunt Kit takes her in, offering a room in which to stay while she recovers. The room happens to be in Kit’s apartment in a contemplative retreat center where Kit works, and, slowly, the depressed Wren begins to heal by taking up a project of painting the stations of the cross for an upcoming Lenten retreat that Kit is running.
This plot turn makes perfect sense as much of the story revolves around Wren’s interest in art. Her passion for and knowledge about Vincent Van Gogh is significant; her conversations are peppered with quotes from Van Gogh (often from his beloved Letters to Theo, some of which are about his own religious and artistic struggles and his own deep inner demons.) She comments about this or that famous (or lesser known) painting of the legendary Dutch artist and it was so fun learning a bit about the great master in this tender, poignant story.
I am not sure I’ve read a novel quite like this before and I greatly appreciated the descriptions of Wren’s interior life and psychological condition. I appreciated her hard episodes with her disturbed (bi-polar?) friend, and resonated deeply, as any parent might, with the portions of the plot about the out-of-state parents who so badly wanted to help their hurting daughter, but did so mostly by keeping their distance. Some readers will appreciate that Hannah, a pastor from the earlier “Stepping Stones” stories, makes a brief appearance.
The Shades story unfolds from a variety of views and the redemptive message for those who suffer, or those who care for the suffering, is inspirational (without being overly simplistic.) There is a lot of “spirituality” God-talk that I often don’t appreciate in novels, but, it works well in Shades of Life as this female pastor, rooted in contemporary evangelical spirituality, trained in spiritual direction, naturally does have this gentle, hospitable demeanor and propensity to speak a certain way, even if some of it sounded a bit clichéd. It was, in fact, spot on. Her graciousness and gentle spirit reflects a certain sort of clergy and pastoral caregiver many of us know well, and Wren’s helpful expertise in Van Gogh’s work, rings true. What a pleasure (and help) to read a book about grief and God, about art and psychology, about social work and spirituality. Highly recommended.
By the way, for book groups, IVP has nicely published a little study guide booklet, too, that sells for $10.00.
My Dearest Dietrich: A Novel of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Lost Love Amanda Barratt (Kregel) $21.99 This is a brand new novel that I just had to mention even though we have not yet read it. There have been a few other authors brave enough to create a novel set in World War II era Germany, using that backdrop to explore, in fictional storytelling, what it might have been like to be romantically involved with Dietrich Bonhoeffer during the years of his underground seminary and resistance to National Socialism and Hitler. We have letters from him during those years of his imprisonment starting on February 7, 1945, the day after he turned 39 when he was transferred from his prison in Berlin to Buchenwald to Regensburg to Flossenburg.
Some of those previous historical fiction works were very well respected although a few were not so well done, not so accurate, and, perhaps, not so artful or interesting. My Dearest Dietrich is said to be very solid and it may stand in league with Becoming Mrs. Lewis: The Improbable Love Story of Joy Davidman and C. S. Lewis, the recent novelization by Patti Callahan about Joy Davidman that became a sensation last winter. Like that one, My Dearest Dietrich, follows the life of a brave and thoughtful woman who stands alongside a legendary Christian leader. Becoming Mrs. Lewis was fraught with the unforgettable story of Lewis marrying the smart, former Jewish atheist from America on her deathbed, and if that was gut-wrenching and made for a great read, My Dearest Dietrich is surely equally fraught. What a story this is — what one reviewer called “as beautiful as it is brave.” This isn’t a spoiler alert, really, since anyone who might be drawn to pick up this new historical fiction story surely knows that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed by the Third Reich in 1943.
Some may know that his relationship with Ms Maria Wedemeyer to whom he was engaged but did not marry, was itself complicated.
There is included in the story some of the actual correspondence of Bonhoeffer taken (naturally) from his famous Letters and Papers from Prison but also the lesser known Love Letters from Cell 92 by Bonhoeffer and Maria which was translated into English and released in the States in the early 1990s. I’m eager to see what this good storyteller does with this previously unexplored story, what one Christy Award winning author (Jamie Jo Wright) says is “a haunting love story with beautiful prose and picturesque descriptions” and what Jocelyn Green (of Between Two Shores) calls “a multifaceted story of the highest stakes and the deepest loves.”
Where the Crawdads Sing Delia Owens (Putnam) $26.00 I mentioned this in passing, above, as it has been riding at the top (or near the top) of all the standard best-seller lists and is hugely popular this summer. It has sold more than 2 million copies (in part due to its choice as a “Reese’s Book Club” selection. (That Reese Witherspoon has very good Southern taste, I must say!)
I will also say that it took me just a bit to “get into it”as they say. Perhaps the writing (the character’s speech, actually) will be appreciated like the famously difficult, if at times playful, black cadence found in the stunning, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neal Hurston, a beloved, unforgettable work, considered a great classic of American literature, despite (or because of) the demands it places upon the reader. In any event, Where the Crawdads Sing starts with this complicated vocabulary that (foolishly) I tried to read as some ancient, New Orleans/Cajun dialect. Soon enough, we learn that the young character is living in the land of palmettos in North Carolina, in a region having developed and maintained its own unique dialectic, in the American Southeast One reviewer says it is “steeped in the rhythms and shadows of the coastal marshes” and is “fierce and hauntingly beautiful.”
In what is in part a murder mystery and a story of grave injustices, Where the Crawdads Sing is also a gripping coming-of-age story, what Alexandra Fuller calls “a lush debut novel… her mystery wrapped in gorgeous, lyrical prose.” It has been called “astonishing” and “heartbreaking” and “ambitious, credible, and very timely.”
One of the things I liked was the good writing about the natural world – the marsh ecology, the herons, the slow, slow days of this child, Kya, living alone along the wetland shores of the Outer Banks. In that, it was very lovely.
The New York Times Book Review says that, “In her isolation that abandoned child makes us open our own eyes to the secret wonder – and dangers – of her private world.” We don’t know if many other religiously-oriented bookstores carry this kind of work, but we are happy to recommend it.
Southernmost Silas House (Algonquin Books) $15.95 This publisher is renowned for good, classy, meaty (Southern) stories, and this one just released in paperback – called “bracing, honest, and luminous” — is no exception. The fictional Asher Sharp is an evangelical preacher who is, as it says on the back cover, “willing to give up everything for what he believes in. Except his son.”
The writing is mature, highly literary, and, like Mr. House’s other important books of fiction, youth fiction, and non-fiction (he edited Something’s Rising, a book we carry about Appalachian folk resisting mountaintop removal) it is set in the South, including more or less a chase/road trip from the mountains of Tennessee through Kentucky and finally to colorful Key West, actually – hence, the title.) We saw a review of this when it first came out in hardback last year in Sojourners and realized it had profound insight about hopes and fears and struggles and faith and family, mostly revolving around the questions of religious allies of persons with same-sex attraction and the consequences of this pastor’s preaching about tolerance and his loyalty to his gay son. Recently, we saw a stellar review in The Englewood Review of Books from which a blurb is drawn and reprinted in the inside of Southernmost.
Many good writing and reading folks have endorsed this, from Southern and rural writers like Dorothy Allison and Charles Frazier and the lovely (and funny) Lee Smith, who ends her amazing review with these words:
“With its themes of acceptance and equality, Southernmost holds a special meaning for America right now, with relevance even beyond its memorable story.”
All Manner of Things Susie Finkbeiner (Revell) $15.99 I think the simple cover and the curious title (hasn’t that ever been used as a book title before?) first struck me, as did the imagination-capturing blurb from Jocelyn Green, a Christy Award-winning author of Between Two Shores, who wrote, “Some books are meant to be read. All Manner of Things is meant to be lived in.” If the characters are real and the story important, this quote is a huge invitation, eh?
This is the story of a young man who enlists in the Army in 1967 and, from Viet Nam, sends his sister, Annie Jacobson, the address of their long-estranged father. If anything were to happen in Nam, Mike wrote, Annie must reach out to their father.
Unexpectedly, the father returns and there are tragedies in this already tense time. There is grief and struggle, hardships and family stuff. For those of who lived in those hard if exciting times, stories like this could be healing and hopeful. That it is explicitly Christian will appeal to many.
You may recall how we touted The Solace of Water, a story set in central Pennsylvania that told of the friendship of an Amish woman and a black woman, united by grief, written by Elizabeth Byler Younts. Ms Younts writes about All Manner of Things,
“With intimacy, a poetic voice, and an ever-present grip on hope, Finkbeiner writes with breathtaking admiration for the common American family in the throes of unbearable circumstances. Beautiful. Honest. Artfully written. A winning novel.”
The Most Fun We Ever Had Claire Lombardo (Doubleday) $28.95 Okay, I’ll admit it. I got this into our store mostly because I loved the cover. And I read a fabulous review. (But mostly the cover.) Some people just love holding this kind of a big, thick, novel — I recently ordered for myself another hardcover copy of Elizabeth Gilbert’s splendid The Signature of All Things just because such a sprawling, epic, wondrous novel deserves a material heft in the hand to match the story. The Most Fun We Ever Had, a debut novel with amazing endorsements from the likes of Richard Russo and Affinity Konar, despite the cheery title, just seems to deserve this good, fat, 500 page volume. It’s apparently an ambitious, sprawling, multi-generational novel about the life-long friendship of four sisters and their respective families. The Guardian said it could be the “literary love child of Jonathan Franzen and Anne Tyler.” Ha.
Advance praise has been significant and fun:
“A wonderfully immersive read that packs more heart and heft than most first novels…A deliciously absorbing novel wit–brace yourself-a tender and satisfyingly positive take on family.”
“This juicy saga spans more than four decades…You’ll be glad this loopy family isn’t yours, but reading about them is a treat.”
“A family epic…It resembles other sprawling midwestern family dramas, like Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. The result is an affectionate, sharp, and eminently readable exploration of the challenges of love in its many forms.”
“Everything about this brilliant debut cuts deep: the humor, the wisdom, the pathos. Claire Lombardo writes like she’s been doing it for a hundred years, and like she’s been alive for a thousand.”
— Rebecca Makkai, author of The Great Believers
“Lombardo’s impressive debut is a gripping and poignant ode to a messy, loving family in all its glory. She juggles a huge cast of characters with seeming effortlessness, bringing each to life with humor, vividness and acute psychological insight.”
— Madeline Miller, New York Times bestselling author of Circe
“What a splendid, spacious, gripping novel Claire Lombardo has written. These pages sparkle with wit and wisdom. I love the four difficult Sorenson daughters, each in the grip of her own emergencies. The Most Fun We Ever Had is a gorgeous and profound debut.”
— Margot Livesey, author of Mercury
The Tubman Command Elizabeth Cobbs (Arcade) $25.99 If you follow serious historical fiction you may know of Cobbs for her best-selling novel, The Hamilton Affair. Here she offers a fictionalized account of a lesser known event in American history, the time in May 1863 when the demoralized Union Army (having suffered fresh losses at the Battle of Chancellorsville and Fort Sumter stood to taunt the American Navy) recruited a woman with the code-name Moses. You know this is the heroic (and by that time, hunted by the Confederates) Harriet Tubman.
The episode this novel recreates is one of the most daring and dangerous in all of the history of the Civil War. In Beaufort, South Carolina, Tubman plots an dramatic expedition behind enemy lines to liberate hundreds of bondsmen and to recruit them as soldiers. And you thought she just led the chillin’ North to safety.
This novel “tells the story of Tubman at the peak of her powers, when she devises one of the largest plantation raids of the Civil War.” Plantation raids? Who knew? Union General David Hunter places her in charge of a team of black scouts even though he’s skeptical of what one woman can accomplish. If you care about or enjoy learning about the Civil War at all, this is simply a must – it will blow you away!
What an adventure this book tells of: there are alligators, overseers, slave catchers, sharpshooters, and even some hostile Union soldiers, gunships, and men who simply didn’t believe in her abilities. Did you know Tubman was married? Her husband – who she has left to pursue her unbelievable calling in this crisis of American freedom struggles – figures in to the story as well. I’ve only started it, but I’m finding it exceptionally compelling, a real page-turner, human and humane and yet visionary and exciting. The Tubman Commands is extraordinary fiction.
Here are just a few of the colorful, persuasive, endorsing reviews:
“If you think you know all about Harriet Tubman, think again–this novel brings her alive as only fiction can. With a historian’s grasp of detail, Elizabeth Cobbs spins a gripping tale of romance, wartime spies, and daring escapes. The story of Harriet Tubman’s leadership of black troops behind enemy lines, The Tubman Command illuminates the unfathomable bravery of people fighting for liberty and the birth of a better nation. Harriet emerges from these pages as a brilliant strategist, master of psychology, and a fully-rounded woman whose legendary heroism has made her a cherished American icon.” –Kate Manning, author, My Notorious Life
“Cobbs is that rare writer who possesses both the uncanny eye of the historian and the dynamism of a natural storyteller. By the last chapter I was breathless and near tears, captivated by the true tale of one woman who railed against injustice and changed the course of history.” –Fiona Davis, national best-selling author of The Masterpiece
“A phenomenal piece of writing which humanizes one of America’s most beloved icons and shows a different side of a woman whom many think they already know.”– Edda L. Fields-Black, Author of ‘Combee’ Harriet Tubman and the Combahee River Raid (forthcoming)
“Cobbs paints a vivid portrait of Tubman at the heart of one of the most innovative, daring, and dangerous missions of the Civil War. The heroic and brilliant Tubman is brought vividly to life as a flesh-and-blood woman and a strong and cunning leader in this compelling and instructive fictional tribute.” — Booklist
The Last Year of the War Susan Meissner (Berkley) $26.00 I wanted to list this since it is one Beth found very engaging and very entertaining. It is a beautifully poignant novel, with what one reviewer said “explores the complexities of love, friendship, and the fleeting truths of identity.” The prose is truly lovely, even if it highlights a dark aspect of our culture and a sad time in American history.
In this new novel Meissner tells of two older women who realize they are both still alive (in their 80s) and plan a reunion. You see, they met at a Texas interment camp that the USA ran for Japanese citizens and for German citizens during World War II. One, the German woman, whose name is Elise, is starting to get Alzheimer’s – she calls her condition “Agnes” – but she surely recalls her friendship with a Japanese woman who she met in the awful camp. Beth was struck by this story about Agnes (she read some of it out loud to me as we ourselves death with my own mother’s loss of memory) and how Elise (14 years old when her father, a second generation American citizen, was arrested for being a Nazi sympathizer) ended up meeting Mariko in the camp. This elegant story tells of the friendship of these two different women, how their lives evolved, and how they reunited in happy friendship near the end of their days.
Michael Gable, of the historical novel A Paris Agreement, says,
Powerful and at times chillingly contemporary, and it reminds us why we read historical fiction in the first place.
Piano Tide Kathleen Dean Moore (Counterpoint) $16.95 This is not a brand new novel, but we somehow had missed it, even though it was written by a memoirist and nature writer that I adore. I’ve read several of Moore’s beautiful non-fiction works (such as Pine Island Paradox and Holdfast and Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature.) Her recent polemic is important and passionate, called Great Tide Rising: Towards Clarity and Moral Courage in a Time of Planetary Change. We stock them all, of course. I had completely missed that this philosophy professor and mom and ecologist and climate change activist had tried her hand at a novel. She’s such a good writer that I figured we should carry it.
I think we first learned of it when we heard that Ms Moore spoke at the Calvin College Festival of Faith and Writing and then, again, came to the college to present a spoken word piece on climate change set to a moving classical piano composition (starting with a mournful bit by Rachmaninoff.) What a wonderful idea!
Knowing about this creative work by Kathleen Dean Moore, then, we certainly wanted to stock her novel. We’re happy to recommend it to you. Beth read this one right away, and found it compelling; a rip-roaring read, funny and entertaining, all about the bad guys who are ruining the environment for a quick buck, the complexities of family loyalties, and a bit of a nifty romance. Set in the gorgeous timberlands of a remote Alaskan island with a greedy industrialist named Axel Hagerman as a protagonist, Piano Tide plays out with some very surprising twists. (You’ll see how the piano fits in, as it does.) It includes elegant descriptions of the landscape and social ecology of this distant place and yet has energy and subversive wit. (In this, it brings to mind the legendary Monkey Wrench Gang.) Oh my, what a nearly “Romeo & Juliet” this then becomes as the young adult children of two opposing players in the battle for the land fall in love and move into the very spot where the turmoil and flooding will happen. Whewie!
I suppose this could be considered a well-written morality tale and a spectacular telling of what could become a transformative act of resistance. We hope all of our fiction makes some sort of difference in your life, transformative, enjoyable — a great use of your funds. We wouldn’t say this if we didn’t truly believe it. Books matter, reading stories can be great enjoyable, and, who knows, you might find some new insights, new vistas, new passions. Happy reading, one and all. Thanks for caring.
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