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Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People
Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People
by Nadia Bolz-Weber
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $15.63
81 used & new from $8.67

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Primer on Grace, September 18, 2015
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In “Accidental Saints,” pastor and author, Nadia Bolz-Weber shares a series of vignettes from her ministry and life, as the pastor of a unique, “alternative” church in Colorado. Most of the stories feature a very similar framework – she encounters a circumstance or person that challenges her in one way or another – irritation, discomfort, sorrow, rage, whatever – and then the situation shifts, enabling her to see that, no matter what, God’s grace reaches yes, that far, and then even farther.

The above sounds schmaltzy, but this book isn’t. Far from it. Whether she is comforting a distraught bishop who is grappling with personal grief (and guilt), dealing with her own rage in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, or struggling with allowing other people to care for her, Ms. Bolz-Weber’s writing is unsparing, unsentimental, unvarnished, and gifted with an almost painful clarity. She doesn’t spare herself, either, which, I think, is one of the things that makes this book so powerful – but neither does she wallow around in her own dysfunction.

As an Episcopalian who comes from a church that follows similar traditions to the House of Sinners and Saints, I also enjoyed reading about her church’s services and liturgies, although I don’t think you need to know what all of those are to enjoy the book. She provides just enough explanation to keep the reader afloat, without getting bogged down in the details.

Above all, this book really helps break the Christian faith open, reminding its readers that, at its core, this beautiful faith need not be about “being good,” having the right political viewpoints, judging non-Christians harshly, or even espousing the right belief system in just the right way. (My evangelical brothers and sisters may not agree with this last statement). It’s about love. That nothing – no sin, or self-hatred, or situation, or despair, or illness, or anything else – is beyond the reach of God’s love. Nothing.

And, if we believe that, as Ms. Bolz-Weber suggests, our job is to respond, and become love-bearers to the world around us.
Powerful stuff.

I wish this book had been around when I began my own faith journey. I would really recommend this for someone who longs for a faith tradition, or those who have been hurt by legalism. It’s definitely worth a read.


The Gates of Evangeline
The Gates of Evangeline
by Hester Young
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $21.33
135 used & new from $0.01

4.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable Southern Gothic story, September 18, 2015
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After the loss of her young son, journalist Charlie Cates begins having nightmares about children. Initially, she assumes these are due to her grief, but then she realizes that they aren’t nightmares – they’re visions of children just after they have died, or on the brink of death.

She gets offered an opportunity to write a book about an unsolved case in Louisiana. The youngest son of a prominent family went missing 30 years ago, and has never been seen or heard from since. Charlie realizes that she has been having visions about this child, so she goes to Louisiana to meet with the Deveau family, to see if she can be of help.

This is an enjoyable read. The story is well-paced, with some interesting twists and turns. I wasn’t entirely crazy about all of Charlie’s actions, but not enough to set (or throw) the book aside. The romance (of course, there has to be a romance) felt a teeny bit forced. I did, however, especially enjoy the eccentric and odd Deveau family and the atmosphere, and the story clipped along nicely.

Just as a warning – it does feature some dark situations involving children, so those who find those things to be upsetting may not enjoy this book. Overall, though, it is a well-written, engaging story and a pleasant way to pass a few hours.


The Courtesan: A Novel
The Courtesan: A Novel
by Alexandra Curry
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $24.69
131 used & new from $0.01

4.0 out of 5 stars Powerful historical novel, August 1, 2015
This review is from: The Courtesan: A Novel (Hardcover)
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In 1881, a Chinese mandarin is beheaded for speaking unwisely. He leaves behind him his seven-year-old orphan daughter Sai Jinhua, as her mother, his concubine, died in childbirth. The child is intelligent, literate and inquisitive, and, unusual for her time, has unbound feet. The mandarin's promptly sells little Jinhua to a brothel, where she first suffers the excruciating pain of having her feet bound, and then, later, the degradation of being a "money tree" for the house. Her only consolation is the affection and companionship of the brothel maid, Suyin.

This existence is cut short, however, when a government official, Sub-Chancellor Hong, visits the brothel, in search of a woman that he believes to be the reincarnation of his dead beloved, and she is whisked away to exotic Vienna. Despite her master's attempts to keep her secluded, Jinhua is fascinated by her new locale, and longs to learn more about it. Her silent struggle to deal with confines and expectations of her expatriate society and remain true to herself was one of the most poignant parts of the novel.

This is a powerfully-written book. The earliest scenes in the brothel are stark and unsparing, so much so that they might upset readers who have been through similar trauma. The atmosphere is well-crafted, and the characters are very well done - even when characters are doing something truly despicable, i.e. selling a child to a brothel, Ms. Curry still manages to evoke a glimmer of sympathy for them.

If I had a criticism, I would say that last part of the book, once Jinhua is back in China, is less strong, and seems abrupt and a bit rushed. Also, it's sometimes a bit hard to get inside of Jinhua's head and really understand her, especially in that section.

Still, it's a very strong debut effort from a very good writer. Recommended.


The Middle of Somewhere
The Middle of Somewhere
by Sonja Yoerg
Edition: Paperback
Price: $15.00
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The wildnerness was the real star, August 1, 2015
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"The Middle of Somewhere" tells the story of Liz Kroft, a young widow, who is struggling with some unresolved personal issues. Desperately for some peace and clarity, she decides to take a break and hike the John Muir Trail, hoping that the time alone will help her figure out how to move forward in her life. Her plans are derailed, however, when her boyfriend, Dante insists on coming along, and her journey is further complicated by unexpected encounters on the trail.

(spoilers ahead)

There's a lot to like in this book. Liz's character is complex and interesting, at least at the beginning of the book, and her struggles are very real. For me, the book really shines when talking about the trail, hiking and the wilderness - it's obvious that Ms. Yeorg has a real love for the wild, and that comes through in her writing.

I didn't, however, like where the book went. I didn't like Dante's character - unreasonable and pushy and possessive in the beginning of the book, and unrealistically super-saintly upon his return. I didn't like how Liz's character unraveled. Others may feel that she became more open to love and vulnerable, but it didn't work for me at all. I wanted her to own her choices, grow and become more open, but still remain strong. Others' mileage may vary.

I also thought that the threat she encounters in the wilderness was a bit of a repetitive plot thread that I've encountered many times elsewhere. It was well-written, with a very real sense of menace, but I was hoping for something newer.

I probably will check out Ms. Yoerg's future works, but this one just wasn't for me.


Empress Game: The Empress Game Trilogy Book 1
Empress Game: The Empress Game Trilogy Book 1
by Rhonda Mason
Edition: Paperback
Price: $6.79
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable sci-fi read, if derivative, August 1, 2015
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With the calling of The Empress Game, princesses from all over the Sakien empire are offered a unique opportunity. The winner of the Game – a ritualized combat tournament - will attain a seat on the Council of Seven, the empire’s ruling body.

Kayla Reunimon is an expert fighter with a shadowed past and a fragile younger brother to support. When a mysterious agent approaches her with a deal, at first, she doesn’t want anything to do with him, but the upside is compelling. In exchange for successfully impersonating one of the princesses, she will receive enough money to transport her brother and herself back to their home space, where they can rebuild their lives.

It is an engaging premise and well-written, if fairly derivative. I had a bit of hard time with the initial premise – the thought of choosing people for such high political office based on their combat skills was odd enough to be distracting. Also, I felt as though the ending was a bit high on the drama scale. Others may find it compelling.

Still, it’s a perfectly good book, well-plotted, with some interesting, if limited, world-building. I appreciated the strength of Kayla’s character and that she made the best decisions she could at the time.


Circling the Sun: A Novel
Circling the Sun: A Novel
by Paula McLain
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.96
214 used & new from $5.68

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating story of a woman out of her time (slight spoilers), June 4, 2015
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In “Circling the Sun,” author Paula McLain, previously known for “The Paris Wife,” tells the story of Beryl Markham. After an unconventional childhood and a disastrous early marriage, Beryl eventually became a horse trainer and aviation pioneer. She is perhaps best known for her involvement in a love triangle with Denys Finch-Hatton and Karen Blixen (also known as Isak Dinasen, of “Out of Africa” fame), but Beryl’s story is much richer and more complicated than that.

This is a very well-told, engaging story. Beryl is a strong, passionate, and interesting character, if, perhaps a bit blind to how her actions might impact other people. Watching her struggle against the conventions and restrictions of her time was painful – and so was watching her seem to make the same sorts of mistakes over and over again and needing to completely retool her life or have someone bail her out. That lessened my interest in the book slightly. I found it interesting to learn that Beryl wrote her own memoir - and, upon reading it, Hemingway described it as "a bloody wonderful book." Beryl's flaws really reminded me of Hemingway's heroes - thoughtless, bold, charging forward without thinking things through. Not necessarily terrible, but sometimes difficult to read. As I read, I thought it a shame that she wasn't born just a few generations later.

On a more positive note, the supporting characters are also very believable and true to life – it was very interesting to see Karen Blixen from another point of view – and the African settings just shine.

I found myself wondering if readers not familiar with Isak Dinasen and “Out of Africa” would still find the book appealing, but I think they would, with the added advantage of not picturing Meryl Streep, Robert Redford and others in the various roles. It is an interesting and engaging story that stands very well on its own. Recommended.


The Shore: A Novel
The Shore: A Novel
by Sara Taylor
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.76
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4.0 out of 5 stars Powerful depiction of a setting and place, June 1, 2015
This review is from: The Shore: A Novel (Hardcover)
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“The Shore” is a collection of interlocking stories and vignettes about a chain of islands off of the Virginia coast. Ranging over a 200-year period, these stories are dark, including extreme poverty, violence, sexual abuse, drugs, and murder. The touch of magical realism that shines through and the strength of many of the female characters prevent the book from being unrelentingly depressing, but it is definitely a tough read.

This is an impressive authorial debut from Sara Taylor. Her stories are tightly constructed, the characters realistic, gritty, and well-drawn, and her range is impressive. I did find the 1980s and 1990s stories a touch repetitive and the dystopian ones, set in the near and far future, didn’t grab me as much as the others – I found the dialect in one of them to be quite distracting. I also would like to see her create a work that focuses on one or more characters in greater depth, as I found myself getting attached some of them and wondering how their lives turned out.

This is an author with great promise. I look forward to seeing what she will do next.


Kitchens of the Great Midwest: A Novel
Kitchens of the Great Midwest: A Novel
by J. Ryan Stradal
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $11.46
138 used & new from $5.56

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Grittier and darker than expected (mild spoilers), May 28, 2015
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In “Kitchens of the Great Northwest,” author J. Ryan Stradal tells the story of Eva Thorvald, first as a baby, then a pre-adolescent, right up through her emergence as a superstar young chef. It’s an interesting method and the voices are clear and distinctive. So is the sense of place – having grown up in the Midwest, the atmosphere felt very “true to life.”

I expected to enjoy this book more than I did, but that may have more to with my expectations than this book itself. Much of the foodie fiction that I have read tends to be happy or contain magical realism or both. This contained neither (mild spoilers). Characters made poor decisions that changed their lives for the worse and made worse decisions. Situations were grim and depressing and got more so. Since we view Eva through other people’s perceptions, I didn’t get a sense of how she felt about her amazing success and hopeful future.

For those who like their fiction well-written, realistic and gritty, this would be a very enjoyable read.


The Sunlit Night
The Sunlit Night
by Dinerstein Rebecca
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $20.98
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Unrelentingly quirky, May 28, 2015
This review is from: The Sunlit Night (Hardcover)
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“The Sunlit Night” has an intriguing premise. Frances and Yasha are two young people who have come to Lofoten, a remote chain of islands in the Norwegian Sea, each with a personal quest. Frances is trying to figure out how to move forward in her life, following the implosion of both her relationship and her family. Yasha has come to fulfill his father’s wishes to “be buried at the top of the world.”

It’s an engaging concept and author Rebecca Dinerstein is a gifted writer – she really makes her characters, and, even more so, the setting, come alive. It's easy to see that she is also a poet - she uses words beautifully.

What I found less enjoyable was the quirkiness of the characters were and how fraught with drama their interactions. I found it overpowering. As I read the book, I actually found myself getting tired, and longed for some normalcy here and there. This may be my own bias, but, for me, quirkiness is kind of like a spice – added to give a dish or a book nuance and flavor, but not necessarily something to be ingested in large quantities on its own.

Other readers may find it whimsical and appealing, which I also did, in parts.

I will definitely check out Ms. Dinerstein’s future works to see what she comes up with next.


Music for Wartime: Stories
Music for Wartime: Stories
by Rebecca Makkai
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $22.32
93 used & new from $0.01

5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant collection of short stories, May 28, 2015
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In “Music for Wartime,” author Rebecca Makkai of “The Thousand-Year House,” and “The Borrower Fame,” turns her considerable talents to the short story genre. While I liked some better than others, all were very good – well-written, perceptive and engaging.

A few standouts for me included her short short stories – “The Singing Women” and the three “Legends,” all of which were around two pages long; “Everything We Know About the Bomber,” and “Exposition” (which gave me actual chills). Ms. Makkai writes with such focus and clarity, which was especially apparent in her shorter works. Not a word was wasted.

The stories contain several common themes – oppression, aftermath of war, music, and religion to name a few, but they emerge gently while engaging with the stories, inviting me to ponder and consider them.

A brilliant collection. I will definitely be checking out her other works.


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