I have been surprised by a number of books lately: many of the novels I’ve been excited about reading have been a disappointment, while books for which I’ve held lower expectations have been pleasant surprises. Of the four novels I’m sharing in today’s post, the book I enjoyed the most was one I hadn’t anticipated liking. As for the nonfiction titles—well, I’ll let you read my reviews to see my thoughts on those.
My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, by Fredrik Backman: Seven-year-old Elsa is precocious and lonely, with nobody who understands her except for her seventy-seven-year-old grandmother. The two are the best of friends who connect over the fairy tales Elsa’s grandmother tells her about a magical kingdom where everyone is different, just like the two of them.
When Elsa’s grandmother dies, Elsa is left to fend for herself through her parents’ divorce, the pending birth of a half-sibling, and difficulties at school. In the midst of these challenges, Elsa finds adventure through a collection of apology letters her grandmother left behind for people she has wronged. The letters lead Elsa on a journey of connection and enlightenment as she is introduced to a side of her grandmother she never knew, and learns new lessons about forgiveness, acceptance, resilience, and courage.
Fredrik Backman is one of my favorite contemporary authors, and his insights into humanity always astound me, but this book wasn’t a favorite. While Elsa is a charming character, and both she and her grandmother are brilliantly crafted, I struggled to connect to their story. The narrative moves in and out of reality, and the fantasy elements distract from the poignancy of their relationship and from the lessons Elsa learns in the wake of her grandmother’s passing.
One definite bright spot was the appearance of Britt-Marie; if you enjoyed Britt-Marie Was Here, and are open to an air of magical realism in your fiction, you’ll likely love this.
My Rating: 3.5 Stars. (Rounded down to 3 stars on Goodreads)
The Lions of Fifth Avenue, by Fiona Davis: In 1913, Laura Lyons lives in an apartment of the New York Library with her two children and her husband, the library’s superintendent. Desiring more from life than marriage and motherhood, Laura enrolls in the Columbia Journalism School. Her studies open Laura’s eyes to many new worlds, including a feminist organization called the Heterodoxy Club where she quickly finds herself at home. Meanwhile, the disappearance of several valuable books from the New York Library threatens Laura’s home life and potentially her future career prospects.
In 1993, Laura’s granddaughter, Sadie Donovan, is a famous essayist and curator at the same library where her grandmother once lived. When rare manuscripts and books begin disappearing from the exhibit Sadie is running, she launches an investigation into the thefts and—more personally—into the life of her enigmatic grandmother.
This is a book that, on its surface, checks all of my boxes: two compelling mysteries, a bookish setting, a dazzling historical premise, strong female protagonists. . . . Unfortunately, I couldn’t get into this one. Neither story held my attention, and I found the present-day storyline particularly dry. There are two romantic story threads, neither of which I found believable or engaging.
Many people love Fiona Davis’s books, but this is not the first book from her that hasn’t met my expectations (though I did like both The Address and The Dollhouse more than this book). I’m starting to think she simply isn’t the right author for me.
My Rating: 3 Stars.
The Next Right Thing: A Simple, Soulful Practice for Making Life Decisions, by Emily P. Freeman: I’m not usually a rereader: there are too many good books out there for me to willingly commit time to revisiting something I’ve already read. A few weeks ago, I was feeling stuck—in all areas, including my reading—and needed help moving forward and simply doing each next right thing. Enter Emily P. Freeman: her weekly podcast is a favorite of mine, and the book that her podcast inspired was one of my favorite reads of 2019. In a time when I couldn’t bring myself to read much of anything, I needed to hear Emily’s soothing voice reading her words of wisdom on decision making.
In listening to the audiobook, I was reminded why I have recommended this book to so many of my friends. Through relatable storytelling and thoughtful exploration of Scripture, Emily guides her audience through various aspects of decision-making, offering up an invaluable set of tools—such as choosing a “no mentor”, refusing to rush clarity, and embracing being a beginner—that can be used for the biggest of life decisions down to the tiny, seemingly inconsequential choices we face throughout each day. Emily does not provide simplistic answers for those of us plagued by chronic hesitation or decision fatigue, but she DOES offer guidance on where to find the answers, all while reminding us that “the decision is rarely the point. The point is you becoming more fully yourself in the presence of God.”
I was right to return to this book in the midst of my own foggy season: Emily was a comforting shepherd through the haze and the indecision, gently leading me forward to my own next right thing.
My Rating: This one holds up to a my original rating of a solid 5 Stars!
The Mountain Between Us, by Charles Martin: On a stormy winter night, two strangers are stranded in a Salt Lake City airport when their flights are canceled. Dr. Ben Payne has just wrapped up a medical conference and, eager to return home in time for a slate of surgeries he has scheduled the next day, decides to charter a plane that can get him around the storm and drop him in Denver in time to catch a connecting flight. When Ben realizes the private plane can hold one more passenger, he offers the seat to Ashley Knox, a journalist who hopes to make it home in time for her wedding in two days.
The flight is going smoothly until the pilot suffers a stroke mid-flight, causing the plane to crash into the High Uintas Wilderness. Injured but alive, Ben and Ashley are faced with harsh weather and the fact that nobody knows they are missing. As Ben cares for Ashley’s severely injured leg, the two become close, helping each other brave the perils of the wilderness while also working through past relational hardships and trauma.
I’m not usual one for survival stories, but the human element—specifically Ben’s flashbacks to his early relationship with his beloved wife—made this an approachable and engaging read. I enjoyed the personable narrative style and found both Ben and Ashley to be well-drawn, likable characters. Aspects of their dynamic were a bit cringey for me (at least until specifics of their other romantic relationships were revealed), but I appreciated their mostly-platonic friendship and genuine care for one another.
Like all of Martin’s books, the novel has Christian overtones but isn’t overtly religious, nor is the romantic storyline gratuitous or steamy. The book is grittier than most feel-good stories, and Martin does a good job of balancing a potentially graphic and overly-dramatic story with compassion and understand drama.
My Rating: 4 Stars.
The Search for Significance: Seeing Your True Worth Through God’s Eyes, by Robert S. McGee: We all want to matter. Unfortunately, most of us look for significance and purpose in all the wrong places: we seek approval from others, or we perform in order to prove our worthiness, yet we inevitably still feel unworthy and ashamed. In The Search for Significance, Christian counselor Robert McGee provides a clear, Biblical basis for our significance and self-worth by explaining the nature of our search for significance; identifying and challenging our inadequate answers; and then applying God’s truth.
In alternating chapters, McGee identifies four false beliefs—1) “I must meet certain standards to feel good about myself,” 2) “I must be approved by others to feel good about myself,” 3) “those who fail are underserving of love and deserve to be punished,” and 4) “I cannot change, I am hopeless”—followed by God’s specific solution to these false belief systems (justification, reconciliation, propitiation, and regeneration.)
McGee’s writing is meaty yet accessible, with actionable steps towards finding true significance grounded in scriptural truths. I appreciated his blending of psychological ideas with Biblical principles, uniting secular research with what we know from God’s Word. The result is a book that reads like self help but goes much deeper and offers much longer lasting impact.
I read this book along with my Women’s Leadership Group, and we all had some great takeaways and helpful applications. I often struggle to allow the messages of books like this one to sink into my heart and work their way into my behavior, but the accountability of my group—and working through many of the book’s exercises alongside other women—meant that this book will have a lasting impact on my personal beliefs and actions. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone struggling with feelings of inadequacy and shame, but go into it knowing that it is an emotionally challenging read that will require deep engagement and reflection if you truly hope to get the most out of it.
My Rating: 4 Stars.
Of Literature and Lattes, by Katherine Reay: Of Literature and Lattes returns to the endearing town of Winsome, Illinois, picking up where The Printed Letter Bookshop left off but focusing on a new set of characters: Following the collapse of a Silicon Valley start-up that wiped her out financially and left her blackballed within her industry, Alyssa has reluctantly returned to her home town in hopes of a fresh start. Alyssa has wanted nothing to do with her mother, Janet, since her mother’s affair and her parents’ subsequent divorce, but with nowhere else to turn, Alyssa finds herself living in her childhood room and forced to confront the pain of her past—which includes recognizing that Janet is no longer the woman she once was and might be deserving of the grace and reconciliation Alyssa longs for from her own life.
Meanwhile, coffee aficionado Jeremy Mitchell recently arrived in Winsome by way of Seattle to open the coffee shop of his dreams. The move was driven by a desire to be near his young daughter, Becca, but Mitchell’s ex-wife is making that difficult. To add to his troubles, Jeremy is having trouble fitting in with the people of Winsome, he is grappling with childhood wounds brought on by his parents’ death and his time in foster care, and his coffee shop is bleeding money and he doesn’t know why. When Jeremy meets Alyssa, they form an immediate connection that begins with a hopeful business agreement and has the potential to be much more.
With her knack for writing cozy novels with poignant, redemptive themes, Katherine Reay is one of my go-to authors, and while I will continue to read every book she writes, this one wasn’t my favorite. The story here is lacking, with too many loose subplots and uneven character development. Alyssa and Mitchell are intriguing protagonists with compelling pasts and intriguing redemption stories, but they lack chemistry, and I think the book would have been better without the halfhearted romantic storyline. I also didn’t care for the narrative structure of a continually shifting perspective, which jumps in and out of the heads of various citizens of Winsome without fully fleshing out any of their stories, emotions, or motives.
That said, I adore the town of Winsome and enjoyed the chance to catch up with some of the beloved characters of The Printed Letter Bookshop (especially Janet, who is given a beautiful second chance in this book; her dynamic with Alyssa is just wonderful). I also really liked the literature connection, something we find in all of Reay’s novels; this one incorporates themes from Of Mice and Men, which are beautifully woven into the narrative in some very insightful ways. If you are a Katherine Reay fan, you’ll likely enjoy this book, but if you are new to this author, start with Dear Mr. Knightly (or any of her other books, really) instead.
My Rating: 3.5 Stars. (Rounded up to 4 stars on Goodreads)
Part Two of this month’s book reviews is headed your way this Thursday!