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Book Reviews  - 2024

The Last Lifeboat by Hazel Gaynor, historical fiction, 2023

While based on a true incident, Gaynor builds a fictional story that is compelling, brutal, and unforgettable. While Alice King doesn’t consider herself strong or brave, she wants to do her part as the German threats become real in London, 1940.  She volunteers to chaperon children who were being evacuated to Canada.  When the unthinkable happens and their ship is torpedoed, Alice ends up in the last lifeboat set adrift.  What results is a story of miscalculation, survival, and where to find hope in desperate places.  Powerfully written, her prose sweeps you into the story for a truly unputdownable read.

The Tea Lady of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See, Fiction, 2017                

In the remote Yunnan Chinese village, Yi-lann and her family farm tea the way their ancestors did. Yi-lann hopes to be the first of her village to pursue college until she becomes pregnant without a husband, she hides her pregnancy, delivers a girls, and leaves her in a nearby city to be adopted.  The dual story of Yi-lann in China and her daughter, now adopted in America weaves an intricate story of identity loss and gain amid cultural clash and family expectation.  Lisa See proves her storytelling expertise once again to introduce us to a strong people, a tea culture, and the heart-reaching pursuit of family.

 

An Altar in the World by Barbara Taylor Brown, Spiritual Formation, 2010                            

Barbara Taylor Brown invites readers to see the Divine in everyday activities and environments.  She believes that when we see the sacred everywhere, we  become more aware of the presence of God. With personal examples and simple practices, she suggests that we can make an altar anywhere in ways that enhance intimacy with God.

The Pioneers:  The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West by David McCullough, Nonfiction, 2019

Pulitzer Prize winning historian, David McCullough, brings history alive in this masterful account of the settlers who plowed and organized and fought to create the state of Ohio. What makes a Massachusetts minister Mannasseh Cutler and military General, Rufus Putnam, uproot family, reduce life to sheer perseverance, and set out for the unknown?  It was part idealism with a generous portion of hope. This was my first McCullough book but I will gladly read another.  Alive with dream and its high cost, this is story we need to remember every time we vote, go to a grocery store or enjoy choosing where to go to church.

All My Knotted-Up Life:  A Memoir by Beth Moore, Memoir, 2023

This book surprised me on several levels.  I read it because it kept coming up on several book lists I follow because of their thoughtful recommendation is.  I was not disappointed.  She is brutally honest while infusing humor through word choice and southern rhythm.  Understanding how she survived childhood sexual abuse by her father and still grew up with a solid, unswerving belief in a God of love is nothing less than miracle.  Add her husband’s PSTD and bi-polar diagnosis and the rejection she endured from the church she had faithfully served, and her story is a survival story more than a success story.  Beth’s dogged, unswerving, honest love for God was her lifeline.  And for that, I thank Beth Moore for reminding us that in all things, God IS faithful.

Remembering Dresden by Dan Walsh, Suspense,2016

I’ve wanted to read a Dan Wash book for a while after hearing him at a Writers Conference.  This one, though 2nd in a series, was perfect since I have visited Dresden, the city American bombers destroyed in WWII in our fight against German aggression.  Walsh builds a believable story for his Jack Turn character, a history professor working on his dissertation about the Dresden bombing.  Turner rented a secluded Georgia cabin from a senator he only knew by name and power.  When he accidentally found a scrapbook of Dresden orphaned German children and a Journal written in German, he  asked his girlfriend, Rachel, to translate it. As they read the translation, they wandered into a mystery that would threaten their lives and reveal the secrets the Senator had carefully hidden.  And now I’m going to have to read another Jack Turner novel!

The Art of Gathering by Prya Parker, Nonfiction, 2020

I picked this book because it showed up on a couple of my email book lists with great reviews.  I learned so much from this specialist about clear purpose, how to start and close a gathering, the responsibilities of a host and so much more. I will be more committed to these critical components in the future as I lead Bible Studies and dinner guests.  Prya Parker is a sought-after organizer of large company gatherings as well as celebratory gatherings.  Her stories are fascinating and her principles eye-opening.  If you gather people in any way, it’s worth a look.

Tom Lake by Ann Patchett, Fiction, 2023

Ann Patchett’s characters are bits and pieces of people we have known and come to life in times we know about but didn’t necessarily live in.  Such is the case with main character, Lara, who plays the part of Emily in My Town as if it were written for her and opened the door to a successful acting career. A tennis accident sidelined her, and another successful “Emily” emerged.  But life was not over for Lara.  She married gentle and solid Joe who had inherited his family’s cherry orchard.  When Lara decides to tell her daughters her “other” life story, something comes together for Lara.  It is the understanding of home and family that brings all the stability and identity she ever needed. 

The Uncharted Flight of Olivia West by Sara Ackerman, Historical Fiction, 2024

Hawaiian born Sara Ackerman tells the dual story of hopeful flyer Olivia West in 1920 and artist Wren Summers in 1987. The 1920 story features Olivia West as navigator from one of the pilots in the 12,400-mile Dole Air Race across the Pacific.  The 1987 story is about artist Wren Summers  who inherits land in Hawaii when her life is unraveling. While the story of Olivia is fictional, the Dole Air Race is not and did include a female passenger. The story alternates between the nail-biting re-telling of the dangers of flying across the Pacific and the unfolding mystery of the 60- year old plane left in the barn Wren inherited.  The book is based on the actual events from the Dole Air Race and the rise of unrecognized female pilots. This is a satisfying story of two women facing personal challenges and overcoming them with courage and perseverance. 

The Heaven and Earth Grocery Story by James McBride, Fiction, 2023

The story centers around Moshe and Chona Ludlow, Jewish immigrants on Chicken Hill in Pottstown, Pennsylvania where Jews and African Americans shared community in 1972. Opening with the discovery of a skeleton at a dig sight for a new building, makes the story part murder mystery without being a detective story. Chona’s Heaven and Earth Grocery Store is a centerpiece for the  community where more than groceries are dispensed.  When childless Chona convinces her husband they need to provide a safe home for an orphaned deaf black boy the state is trying to “imprison” in a mental institution, their lives are more fulfilling and more dangerous.  McBride uses a scrapbook of characters and writes exquisitely with such detail that places you in the story.  But this is not a “sweet” story.  Be prepared for uncomfortable sexual encounters that only underline the challenges of living under privileged and under supported except through community. 

A Long Petal of the Sea:  A Novel, by Isabel Allende, Historical Fiction, 2020

This book paints a story of loss and exile when Francisco Franco overthrew the existing Spanish government in the Spanish Civil war to become dictator of Spain. We meet Victor, a medic in the war whose brother was killed leaving his young wife, Roser, pregnant and destitute.  Victor makes it his mission to get Roser to safety but to do it, he must marry her. After experiencing the horrors of a concentration camp, they find passage on a ship moving refugees to Chile, “a long petal of the sea” as Chilean poet Pablo Neruda described the country. While Victor and Roser find safety, it takes a long time and another war before they find each other.  This is a complicated epic story worth the read for its historical value as well as the way its characters learn how perseverance can bring people home, even if it isn’t where they started. 

 

Enchantment:  Awakening Wonder in an Anxious Age by Katherine May, 2023

Books about creativity always entice me.  This book was written when Katherine May  lost her desire for what fueled her creativity prior to the pandemic and began to look for the meaning of enchantment—where to find it and how.  What follows is a rather esoteric foray into the mind of a successful creative who loves words and what she can accomplish with them.  She looks deeply into the natural world for answers to source and spark of creativity.  While she embraces modern thought with little room for Christian spirituality, there are nuggets to glean.  

The Lost Daughters of Ukraine by Erin Litteken, Historical fiction, 2023

I read this book to learn how the history of Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine in 1941 has become a despicable repetition of cruelty and misplaced power.  Based somewhat on the author’s family story, the book follows 3 women:  Vika is a mother who must find her children, Liliya is a teenager conscripted for a work camp, and 12-year-old Halya finds herself in survival mode alone.  When they are separated in their run for safety, can they find what they lost, or will loss be their only legacy?   Emotional and nail-biting, the story teaches that survival is a hope in the heart that power and cruelty cannot extinguish.

Sipsworth by Simon Van Booy, Fiction, 2024

Helen Cartwright returns to the London village of her childhood after losing her husband and son. She only wants to die in peace. On a quiet, cold winter night she “inherits” a tiny mouse who has taken refuge in her house.  Thus begins a story, a relationship, and a lifeline for Helen.  While she tries to find a new home for this “unwanted” mouse in the house, she becomes dedicated to this tiny creature’s every need. She names him Sipsworth for his quick sucking of water from a tiny bottle cap she dutifully fills. There is a secret about Helen, revealed at just the right time that turns the story in an unexpected journey.  Need a sweet story for your summer read?  Try Sipsworth.

The Women: A Novel, by Kristin Hannah, Historical Fiction, 2024

Another heart-grabbing story from Hannah, this time about the women who went to Vietnam as nurses.  We follow “Frankie” Frances McGrath, who signed up to go to Vietnam to earn a place on her father’s wall of heroes and more importantly in his heart. The two nurses who help her navigate the horrors of war and matters of the heart become lifelong friends. What Frankie learns in the surgery about war will haunt her and nearly destroy her. On returning home, she is treated as if she wasn’t  there because “there were no women in Viet Nam.”  This story lifts the untold story of the women who served as nurses but returned to a world that treated them as non-sufferers and worse, as if their presence meant nothing. The story is richly layered, comprehensive, and haunting. It reminds us of the importance of life-saving friendships and how family sustains even when hiding their own brokenness.

Three Sisters by Heather Morris, Historical Fiction, 2022

From the same author of the Tattooist of Auschwitz, this story is based on interviews of three sisters and family members. It is a haunting but hopeful story as you follow what these sisters went through at Auschwitz and afterwards. The story begin he night before their father died when he made his girls promise they would always take care of each other.  But when the Nazi’s came to take Livia, Cibi voluntarily followed to keep her promise and protect Cibi.  They didn’t realize they were headed to a work camp in Poland and eventually Auschwitz. Later, in an unexpected twist, Magda, joins them.  The sweeping story allows us to witness a perseverance that allowed each girl to save the core of their selves.  Unlike some survival stories, we stay with these girls as they try to live after Auschwitz, cope with their demons, find love, and eventually immigrate to Israel.  Check the author’s website for some family interviews.   https://heathermorrisauthor.com/three-sisters/note-from-the-family/

How the Penguins Saved Veronica by Hazel Prior, Fiction, 2020

I needed lighthearted fiction after reading The Three Sisters and their Auschwitz experience.  This book was perfect.  Eccentric Veronica is 85 and alone and destined to stay that way. Then, a documentary about the penguins in Antarctica intrigues her and prompts a plan.  She will visit the research station for 3 weeks, observe their work, and decide whether to leave her money to worthy goal of protecting and saving penguins. When the scientists receive her letter about her investigative visit, they do everything to dissuade her without success.  And thus, in the cold and isolation with the help of a rescued orphaned penguin, her cold, lonely heart begins to melt. Not only does she discover friendship, but also discovers family. It’s a great read for sweltering summer days!

The Last Lifeboat
Th Tea lady of Hummingbird Lane
An Altar in h World
The Pioneers
All My Knotted-up Life
Remembering Dresden
The Art of Gathering
Tom Lake
Th Uncharted Flight ofOlivia West
The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store
A Long Petal of te Sea
Enchantment
The Lost Daughters of Ukraine
Sipsworth
The Women
Three Sisters
How the Penguins Saved Veronica
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