I reached new reading levels with the number of books I read last month, all in my rush to read 200 books this year (I made it, phew!). Amazingly, I enjoyed (or was at least glad to have read) every single book: my lowest star rating was 3 stars (and I’m positive that opinion was not the popular one). Either I’ve gotten a bit lax with my ratings, or the books have just gotten better as the year has progressed. Today I’m sharing the first six of 22 book reviews I’ve got for you this week. Let’s get to ’em!

Starry-Eyed: Seeing Grace in the Unfolding Constellation of Life and Motherhood, by Mandy Arioto: Every year when I register for MOPS, I receive a welcome packet in the mail. Included in this year’s packet was a small book of devotions, and one of them was lifted straight from this book. I was so taken with the message that I immediately downloaded the full audiobook.

Mandy Arioto is the president and CEO of MOPS, so it’s no surprise that this book is geared towards an audience of young moms, though it could be appreciated by others as well. In bite-sized chapters featuring stories and observations from her own life and studies, Mandy encourages her readers to find grace amidst ordinary life. She explores concepts such as celebrating our calling, embracing feminine power, redefining success, and surrendering to nature’s rhythms—familiar topics that are given new life when examined through Mandy’s unique and thoughtful perspective. Reflections questions at the end of each chapter are helpful and would make for a great discussion guide for a Book Club or MOPS group.

My favorite sections of the book discussed important topics of pain and darkness and what they can teach us. As one of the book’s endorsers wrote, “By dignifying the darkness, Mandy Arioto leads us into the dark night as well as the jubilant light and reminds us there are gifts in both. Whether she’s writing about motherhood, vocation, friendship, marriage, or family, we are invited to consider how we are formed by life’s changing skies.” The sky metaphors appear throughout the book and helped me make peace with the darkening skies of this season.

I was deeply impressed with and moved by Mandy’s writing style. It is warm, relatable, and beautiful, filled with poetic imagery, vivid stories, and lyrical prose. She succeeds at bringing Jesus into the everyday and making Him and His message accessible to a wide audience. Many reviewers described the book as heretical and filled with mysticism and New Age thinking, and though I didn’t mind the references to other faith traditions, I agree that some of her theology is a little shaky. Nevertheless, this is an encouraging and inspiring read that I’ll be recommending to all of my mom friends.

My Rating: 4.5 Stars

A War of Loves: The Unexpected Story of a Gay Activist Discovering Jesus, by David Bennett: I was SO impressed with David Bennett when I heard him interviewed by Mike Erre on my favorite Christian podcast. Bennett is a celibate gay Christian whose nuanced stance on the intersection between Christianity and homosexuality resonated with my personal views more than any other source I’ve heard from. In this memoir, Bennet shares his journey from awareness of his same-sex attraction at an early age, to becoming a vocal anti-Christian gay activist in response to the prejudice and homophobia he faced within the church. After years of exploring various religions during his college years, Bennett had a life-changing encounter with God that led him to rethink his personal views.

War of Loves is more than a book about homosexuality. It is a book about God’s astounding and reckless grace and the heartfelt response that this grace evoked within the author’s heart—and should evoke in everyone who claims to follow Jesus. In Christ, Bennett has come to a deeper understanding of his identity as BOTH a same-sex attracted man AND someone called to sexual purity. Because of his unique stance, Bennett has found himself ostracized from Christians (who do not approve of his identifying as gay and would have him “pray the gay away”) and from the LBGTQI community (who do not understand his non-affirming views of same-sex marriage). Despite feeling alone in his position, Bennett courageously and adamantly shares his experience and the life he has been called to in an attempt to bridge the divide between these two communities. Ultimately, Bennett wants to point people to Jesus, and he invite readers to join him in pursuing a committed relationship with Christ—a relationship that Bennett knows from experience is far deeper and more profound than any relationship we will have on this earth. 

While this is predominately a memoir, it is one with an agenda, and it’s an agenda I can fully stand behind. Bennett backs up his opinions with solid theology and with his own life—he doesn’t just believe these truths, he has sacrificed a great deal in order to live them out. But for Bennett, this is no sacrifice; he views his homosexuality as a divine calling to a life wholly committed to Christ (not unlike Paul or Jesus, who were also single men who committed their lives to the Gospel). 

I want everyone I know to read this—from the Christians who are solidly opposed to the gay community, to the proud LGBTQI folks who believe there is no place for them within the church, and everyone in between. Bennett’s writing is compassionate and grace-filled, but also earnest and hopeful for enormous change. There are several new and important ideas here: Bennett’s thoughts on the idolizing of heterosexual marriage within the church, and how this has contributed to the pro-gay marriage movement are especially profound, and his explanations of why he still identifies as gay were enlightening.

My Rating: 4.5 stars.

Fun Loving You: Enjoying Your Marriage in Midst of the Grind, by Ted Cunningham: When Luke and I were dating, and into our first years of marriage, one of our favorite bonding activities was reading together. We’d hang out in a coffee shop, or on a park bench, or snuggle on the couch at home, and we’d read aloud chapters of relationship books, devotionals, novels—anything. I’ll never forget hanging out at a cafe on Catalina Island during our honeymoon, nursing large mugs of tea while we devoured Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. At the start of this calendar year, I wanted us to get back into the habit of reading together and I figured a marriage book would be a great pick. We brought this book along on a day-date in February and read the first chapter. . . and we haven’t gone on another date since, which also means we never read further in the book. I realized it may never get finished if I waited for us to read it together, so I picked it up on my own this month and polished it off in a day.

Pastor Ted Cunningham has a passion for marriage, specifically lively, fun-filled marriages. In Fun Loving You, he shows couples how to bring laughter and liveliness back into their marriages. Using Song of Solomon as a guide, he walks readers through God’s model for marriage, emphasizing the importance of eliminating kid-centered homes and prioritizing the relationship between Mom and Dad. He gives tips for getting unstuck from marriage ruts, reigniting the fire in the bedroom, and becoming teammates with your spouse. About a third of the book is dedicated to ideas for date nights and couple getaways, complete with discussion questions for those special times away.

I loved the premise of this book, as well as the creative suggestions. Given that Luke and I have only gone on one date all year, the idea of a weekly date night might be a bit aspirational, but Cunningham makes some excellent points about why we SHOULD be making our marriage a priority, as well as some great steps for helping us move forward. Not only is his advice sound, but the book itself is very funny and makes for a quick, lighthearted read.

That said, there were a few things I didn’t love about this book. To put it bluntly, the writing isn’t very good: the ideas are rather jumbled and scattered, and the sentence structure is pretty basic. This is a nitpicky point, but it’s a pet peeve of mine when a book has great ideas that are presented so poorly. I also struggled with the gender stereotypes. Cunningham makes many assumptions  and generalizations about how men and women will behave, and many are inaccurate. (For instance, he insists that women love to be surprised by dates, and that men love to be spotlight-stealing goofballs—neither of which are true for Luke or me.) Finally, though I did appreciate the light tone, some of the humor was way too corny and juvenile for my taste.

If you’ve read your share of marriage books and are looking for something a little different, give this a try. But if you want something a bit deeper, I’d suggest Love and Respect or The 5 Love Languages.

My Rating: 3.5 stars.

Jane of Austin: A Novel of Sweet Tea and Sensibility, by Hillary Manton Lodge: In this modern spin on Sense and Sensibility, sisters Jane and Celia Woodword find themselves evicted from their San Francisco tea shop, just a few years after their mother died and their father ran away in the wake of a business scandal. Along with their younger sister Margot, the women relocate to Austin, Texas, in hopes of a fresh start.

In Austin, the Woodwards face further challenges with finding a new location for their shop. To make matters worse, a rift forms between Jane and Celia when Jane falls hard for musician Sean Willis—a match that Celia doesn’t fully approve. While Jane only has eyes for Sean, she’s caught the attention of retired Marine Captain Callum Beckett, who recently returned to Austin following the loss of his leg in the war.

I adored this modern take on the classic (which happens to be my favorite Jane Austin novel). Lodge captures the spunk and charm of the original story while beautifully bringing it into the 21st century; though I recognized the characters, the story would work well for someone unfamiliar with the original (which to me is the mark of successful fan fiction). The Austin, Texas, references were especially fun for me as an Austin dweller, as were the recipes scattered throughout the novel. Jane’s passion for her work within the tea industry was another wonderful touch. I appreciated the innocence of this novel; as with the classic, there are darker themes and hints at unsavory behavior, but none of this is overt—so refreshing in a romance novel! 

My Rating: 4 stars.

The Furious Longing of God, by Brennan Manning: Brennan Manning, who is best known for writing The Ragamuffin Bible, was a former Catholic priest who spent much of his life “desperately trying to become Mother Teresa.” He was also a recovering alcoholic, a divorced man, and a self-proclaimed sinner saved by Grace. More than any of these descriptors, though, Manning identified as a man furiously loved and pursued by God. In The Furious Longing of God, Manning invites his readers to join him in discovering the intense, limitless, consuming, radical love of God.

In his forward to the book, pastor Mark Patterson writes, “to say that Brennan Manning has blazed new trails in this book would not be true. He has not. But to say that Brennan Manning is attempting once more to plow up the hardened ground of our hearts, now that would be a true statement. And he has, at least for me.” He has for me, too. The message of this book is not new: it as as old as time, the central story of the Bible, and at the core of my own identity; yet it a message I am quick to forget or, worse, take for granted. I believe God loves me. But I don’t always KNOW it, and I definitely don’t grasp the power of this love.

Through the poignant storytelling and evocative word pictures found in this short tome, Brennan Manning has presented the grace and love of God—and the ramifications of this love—more beautifully and succinctly than I have ever encountered in literature. This book is for those who have been hurt by religion, ostracized by the church, and burdened by personal and societal pressures to somehow earn God’s favor. It’s also for people like me, who proclaim God’s love yet don’t always live as loved children of our Abba Father.

I heard the song “Reckless Love” playing in my mind the entire time I was reading. A little research told me that this book was in fact the inspiration for that phenomenal song

My Rating: 4.5 stars.

Convenience Store Woman, by Sayaka Murata: Keiko Furukura was considered an unusual child. Her family didn’t understand her literal perspective of the world or her ambivalence toward societal norms. At 18, Keiko began working part time at a convenience store and suddenly her life made sense. She loved the predictability of the store, where she learned to emulate her coworkers’ mannerisms and speech patterns, and could easily meet the needs of every customer. But now, eighteen years later, Keiko is in her mid-thirties and not much has changed. She is still at the same job, single, and nearly friendless. She begins to wonder if she should be expecting more from life, and when a bitter young man comes to work in the store, she wonders if they should form a partnership in order to conform to cultural expectations and thereby quiet the criticisms from friends and family.

This is a short novel that packs a powerful punch. Not only do we get a wonderful glimpse into the atmosphere of a convenience store—an important setting within Japanese culture—but it is an insightful commentary on societal standards and how they play into one’s identity and sense of purpose. Through Keiko’s simple and sweet story, Murata offers a sharp observation into Japanese life and, really, into the ordinary lives of individuals across cultures.

The focal point of this novel is Keiko, a quirky yet endearing character who is clearly on the spectrum (though Keiko, as the narrator, never acknowledges this). Her uncomplicated interpretation of her world is humorous and refreshing; she cares little about others’ opinions of her, yet is kind, straightforward, easy to please, and ruthlessly committed to her job. I was frustrated by others’ mistreatment of her, yet was warmed and inspired by her perseverance and commitment to her own simple values.

As I already mentioned, this is a short novel and I found the length to be perfect; I appreciate an author who knows just when to draw her story to an end. I was trying to put my finger on why I liked this book more than similar titles such as Eleanor Elephant is Completely Fine and Ginny Moon, and the book’s brevity–as well as the Japanese setting—are likely reasons. My one complaint with this novel was the cumbersome phrasing; this might have been intended as a reflection of Keiko’s nontraditional views of the world, but more likely it was due to awkward translation issues.

My Rating; 4 stars.

I’ll see you back here Wednesday for eight more solid book reviews! 

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