Faith: Essays from Believers, Agnostics, and Athiests edited by Victoria Zackheim

Faith: Essays from Believers, Agnostics, and Athiests edited by Victoria Zackheim
Published by Beyond Words Publishing
Review copy provided by Netgalley

Twenty-four authors share their perspectives on faith in this diverse collection of essays. Zackheim chooses essays about having faith in God, losing faith, having faith that there is no God, and everything in the middle. Most people interested in the subject of faith will find something to take from this collection.

The writing in this essay collection is great. Zackheim clearly pulled out all the stops to get some authors who would contribute truly thoughtful, interesting, and beautifully written pieces. Of course I was more drawn to some of the essays than others (as is typical with any essay or even short story collection) but overall I found something to think about in each one, which is a success in my book.

Oddly enough, the essays that appealed to me the most were those from atheists and agnostics. I guess I never thought of atheism or agnosticism as a faith-based position, to me before reading this collection both those things mean the absence of faith. But I was surprised to find myself nodding along with a lot of what was explained in those essays – many of the authors have faith in their beliefs, too. Just because their belief is that my God doesn’t exist doesn’t make it any less valid of a belief. I think this would be a valuable read for any Christian who finds him/herself having difficulty understanding and/or dealing with atheists and agnostics in their lives. I personally learned a lot and found myself coming to a deeper understanding of what it really means to be atheist or agnostic.

I was most disappointed by the fact that there was nothing in here from people who believe in non-Western religions. I wanted to read not only about Christianity and Judaism, but about Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, anything other than my own religion. I didn’t find much of that, which was really disappointing in a book that was supposed to be about all kinds of faith (at least, that’s what I was expecting).

I liked this collection a lot but the absence of a lot of world religions made me ultimately not as excited about it as I wanted to be. It’s worth a read, though, and the essays really are very well thought-out and beautifully written.

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

The NightingaleThe Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
Published by St. Martin’s Press
Review copy provided by Netgalley

Sisters Vianne and Isabelle, though united by a difficult childhood, could not be any more different. Responsible Vianne lives in the country with her darling husband and daughter, and although she made mistakes in her past, she’s now devoted her life to her family, her home, and her job as a teacher. Rebellious eighteen-year-old Isabelle doesn’t hesitate to fall in love with the wrong man, defy her father’s orders, and flee Paris for her sister’s home when all goes horrifically wrong.

With World War Two in full swing, the sisters are pulled apart both by choice and circumstance. Vianne’s husband is forced to go to war, and a German soldier decides to live in her home with her and her young daughter. Isabelle has joined the Resistance, which takes her back to Nazi-controlled Paris and the father she desperately ran from months earlier. Both women are in precarious, extremely dangerous situations, and the consequences for both of them will be beyond what either can imagine.

Every time I think I’ve read all I can about the Second World War, another book comes along and sweeps me off my feet. In this case, The Nightingale reminded me that there will never be “too many” books about this war (or about any war), because there are an infinite number of experiences people had, and therefore an infinite number of stories to be told. In this case, I was entranced by Vianne and Isabelle and the incredible story Hannah told through these characters. This is a book about love, hope, resiliency in the face of devastating circumstances, about powerful women and about survival against all odds. This novel pulled so many emotions from me and I couldn’t put it down – I was totally swept into this story, as difficult as it was to read at times.

Here’s what I thought was so special about this book – these are ordinary, regular, minding-their-own-business people. People stuck in the middle of a war they had no say in, didn’t vote for, didn’t want, don’t understand, much less agree with. Sure, eventually Isabelle gets personally involved and actually becomes quite a celebrity in the Resistance (read the book to find out exactly what she does), but even she doesn’t get entrenched until the situation is so dire that she cannot possibly imagine doing nothing. Vianne is in a different situation, she has a child to protect and care for, but an enemy soldier is LIVING IN HER HOME. Imagine this – we are at war and one day you hear a knock at the door, and an enemy soldier is there, demanding to live in your upstairs bedroom, to eat your food and use your bathroom and LIVE in your house. This is incomprehensible to me but apparently it was the norm in many Nazi-occupied towns and cities over the course of the war.

I just loved The Nightingale so much. I cannot tell you quite how deeply the book resonated with me, made me think, made me fall in love with these characters, made me consider aspects of the Second World War I’d never thought about before, all of that and more. This is only my second time picking up a novel by Kristin Hannah but I can guarantee that it won’t be my last. Highly recommended!

The Good Girl by Mary Kubica

The Good GirlThe Good Girl by Mary Kubica
Published by Harlequin MIRA
Review copy provided by SheReads

Mia Dennett is the twenty-something daughter of a prominent Chicago judge, a woman who was rebellious in her teens and unconventional in her adulthood – to the disappointment of her parents – but is now settled as an art teacher in an inner-city school. When she meets Colin Thatcher at a bar one night, she likes him enough to decide that a one-night stand is a good idea. Unfortunately for Mia, Colin was hired to kidnap her and deliver her to someone who he assumes will attempt to get ransom from her father. When Colin decides he can’t hand her over to his unknown employer to be hurt, raped, or worse, killed, he takes her to a remote cabin in Minnesota. Mia’s mother, Eve, and the detective on the case, Gabe Hoffman, work around the clock in hopes of finding them, but Colin is sure that he has a plan to keep them both safe – if they can survive Minnesota’s cold winter long enough to act on his plan.

What a roller coaster of a book! What’s unique about The Good Girl, to me, is that for a thriller it was not at all what I’ve come to expect from that genre. While the kidnapping itself was thrill-rideish and the drive to the woods made me have heart palpitations because I didn’t know what the heck this guy was going to do with her, once they got to the cabin the book settled down a LOT. As in, they were basically stuck in this cabin, just the two of them, for days and weeks on end and it almost got a little boring. But it never did because I continued to be on the edge of my seat, just waiting for something to happen. And I wasn’t disappointed in that something, when it did eventually come. But no spoilers.

I loved how the book was told from multiple points of view, but never Mia’s. Some readers might have found this annoying, but to me it worked really well. It was almost as though Mia was the center of the story, but she wasn’t the point of the story at all. Instead, Eve, Gabe, and Colin got to tell their stories and it was all about how Mia defined their lives during this period of time.

The writing in this book was excellent. It was the perfect mix of being evocative and just giving me enough so that I couldn’t stop turning the pages. Kubica really knows how to write a feeling and sense of place, and she did such an incredible job with this one. I felt like I was in that cabin with them, subsisting on canned chicken noodle soup and being so close to freezing to death.

The ending wasn’t exactly shocking – the whole book is rushing toward something, and you know it can’t possibly be good but you can’t stop reading anyway – but I was somewhat surprised by what Kubica chose to do with these characters and their story. Overall, The Good Girl is an excellent book and one that I won’t soon forget. I’m very much looking forward to what Kubica does next.

The Magician’s Lie by Greer Macallister

The Magician's LieThe Magician’s Lie by Greer Macallister
Published by Sourcebooks Landmark
Review copy provided by SheReads

The Amazing Arden is a famous female magician, running her own show and her own empire in a male-dominated world and industry – it is the early 1900’s and traveling circuses, usually headed by men, are all the rage. When Arden’s husband is found dead inside one of her famous illusions, young detective Virgil Holt is determined to get her confession, so he finds her in a bar, brings her home, and traps her until she gives him the information he needs. But the story she spins is unlike anything Holt’s ever heard before, and he’s torn as to whether she’s telling him elaborate lies, or if her crazy story could actually be the truth.

This book appealed to me because it had been compared to Water for Elephants, a book I loved years ago. The novel begins with Virgil watching The Amazing Arden’s act and finding himself shocked and confused by what he’s seeing – he doesn’t know how she’s making these illusions happen, but he instinctively doesn’t trust the woman behind them. When her husband is found dead, he just knows that she’s either responsible for the death or involved somehow. Macallister draws the reader into the story right away – Arden’s husband is found within the first few pages, and a few pages after that, Virgil tracks down Arden and basically kidnaps her. After that, the majority of the novel is Arden telling Virgil her life story.

And what a life story it is! Arden’s past is filled with tragedy and the life she made for herself only came about through a mixture of determination, patience, circumstance, luck, and sheer will on Arden’s part to not go back to where she came from. But the whole time Arden is telling Virgil her life story, he’s questioning everything she says and wondering if he can trust even one word that comes out of her mouth. When she finishes her tale, Virgil is shocked and the reader is left feeling the same way.

I liked The Magician’s Lie well enough. I found myself spellbound by Arden’s story, alternately horrified by the things she experienced and proud of her for turning such a difficult life into such a successful one. But at the same time, I didn’t love this novel as much as I wanted to. The characters were a little too much for me – the good guys too perfect and the bad guys had not an ounce of humanity in them. Arden herself is a mystery because while as a reader, you want to like her and root for her, you also suspect that she’s playing you and Virgil for fools. Because I could never trust Arden, I couldn’t exactly like her, even though I found myself hoping that what she was saying was the truth – until the very end. Without going into detail, while I didn’t quite see the ending coming, it did feel a bit contrived to me. Almost as if the author knew she had to do something shocking with this story, and what she chose to do may have worked really well for a lot of people – but for me, not so much.

I don’t know. I’m torn with this one because while I really liked the journey and was highly entertained by most of the novel, there were aspects of The Magician’s Lie that I didn’t love. But I think that a lot of people will really enjoy this book and I do commend the author for an incredibly unique and successful debut novel.

Mini-Reviews – End of 2014 Reading part 4

The Rosie Effect (Don Tillman #2)The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion
Published by Text Publishing Company
Review copy provided by Netgalley

I loved The Rosie Project so I was super excited to see that Simsion wrote a sequel. In this book, Rosie and Don have been married just under a year when Rosie becomes pregnant. Unfortunately, this sends their relationship into a tailspin – the two of them aren’t communicating, Don has moved a friend into their apartment, and Rosie continues to insist that everything is fine even when it so obviously is not.

I have to be honest and say that I was so disappointed in this book. What was endearing and cute about Don in the first book became redundant and quite annoying in this one. Further, it bothered me how Don and Rosie both acted exactly in character, yet for some reason neither one was able to figure out how to deal with the others’ issues – even though they figured out how to communicate and get along perfectly fine in book one! Wouldn’t you think that Rosie would understand how Don sees the world and acts in the face of adversity and know how to handle it when things out of the ordinary happen (as she did in the first book)? And vice versa? I was, quite frankly, bored with most of the book and if I hadn’t gotten it from a review copy source I would have abandoned it. I like Simsion’s writing but I’m ready for him to create some new characters.

Yes PleaseYes Please by Amy Poehler
Published by It Books

I have been a fan of Amy Poehler since she was on Saturday Night Live. I love Parks and Recreation (and really, really don’t want this to be the last season – SO SAD!) and I knew I’d read this book as soon as I could. Yes Please was everything I wanted and more. Funny, honest, authentic, true, Amy Poehler is everything and I just love her. Everyone says that the audio is better than print, so I may have to reread it this year in audio format. But either way, it’s fantastic and if you are at all a fan of Poehler’s, this is a must-read.

Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged HospitalFive Days at Memorial: Life and Death at a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sherri Fink
Published by Crown

If you haven’t heard of this book, chronicling the five days nurses, doctors, patients and their families spent at Memorial Medical Center after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, you must have been living under a rock. I am here to tell you that the praise this book has received is absolutely worth it, Five Days at Memorial is an incredibly fascinating, if terrifying, read. There’s so much here to think about and discuss it boggles the mind but the biggest lesson I took from this book is that disaster planning is so necessary, especially for big companies. There are individuals who Fink kind of points the finger at here, but at the end of the day, the structures that are supposed to be in place to protect people from having to make life or death decisions in the face of very little food, sleep, and water were just not in place here. I cannot recommend this book enough. I didn’t put it on my end of year survey because I hadn’t quite finished it when I wrote that, but Five Days at Memorial is one of the best books I read all year, hands down. And the audio production is fabulous. Please pick up this book in audio or print – either way you will not regret it.

Zac and Mia by A.J. Betts

Zac and MiaZac and Mia by A.J. Betts
Published by Text Publishing
Review copy provided by NetGalley

From the publisher:

The last person Zac expects in the room next door is a girl like Mia, angry and feisty with questionable taste in music. In the real world, he wouldn’t—couldn’t—be friends with her. In hospital different rules apply, and what begins as a knock on the wall leads to a note—then a friendship neither of them sees coming.

You need courage to be in hospital; different courage to be back in the real world. In one of these worlds Zac needs Mia. And in the other Mia needs Zac. Or maybe they both need each other, always.

I have very little to say about this book because, while I thought it was cute and I liked the characters okay, the thought that it felt like a copycat of The Fault In Our Stars wouldn’t stop nagging at me. While that’s annoying, because Zac and Mia is its own book with unique characteristics and merits of its own, it just kept being too close to the other novel I mentioned. And unfortunately, it was close in the way that it came in as an overwhelmingly clear second fiddle to that other book.

If you haven’t read the John Green novel I mentioned, then Zac and Mia might work better for you. If you have, I’d caution you to tamper your expectations of this one. That being said, these characters are different and likable and the story moves along smoothly. So I did like it. But … what I said about it being a copycat is what I can’t get over. So that’s about all I can say about this one.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station ElevenStation Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Published by Knopf
Review copy provided by Netgalley

From the publisher:

One snowy night a famous Hollywood actor slumps over and dies onstage during a production of King Lear. Hours later, the world as we know it begins to dissolve. Moving back and forth in time-from the actor’s early days as a film star to fifteen years in the future, when a theater troupe known as the Traveling Symphony roams the wasteland of what remains-this suspenseful, elegiac, spellbinding novel charts the strange twists of fate that connect five people: the actor, the man who tried to save him, the actor’s first wife, his oldest friend, and a young actress with the Traveling Symphony, caught in the crosshairs of a dangerous self-proclaimed prophet. Sometimes terrifying, sometimes tender, Station Eleven tells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame, and the beauty of the world as we know it.

Station Eleven was one of my most anticipated reads this year. When I met Emily St. John Mandel at SIBA 2012, I almost died … I fangirled so hard. This book was fantastic and absolutely did not disappoint.

There are a lot of characters in this book, and what I love about this author is she finds unique and surprising ways to make the various characters and their story arcs come together. The book is full of those “ah-ha” moments when you understand how one character and/or timeline is related to something that you thought was entirely separate. The ONE thing I didn’t love about Station Eleven is that, at times, the characters felt a bit at arms’ length from me as the reader. While they were written incredibly well, I didn’t always feel the closeness to the characters I wanted. That being said, that is literally the only thing I didn’t love about this book.

However! I loved so much about this novel. The fact that this is a post-apocalyptic novel shouldn’t scare you away, as it is entirely different from any book of its kind that I’ve read before. For the most part, the story takes place fifteen years after the flu that destroys the world, so the characters are in a place where they have survived the worst of it and are deeply entrenched in a new way of life. So much of this book is not really about the end of the world at all, it’s about the people who are left and the lives they’ve clung to, the new world they’ve made for themselves.

And her writing is to die for. There is a short chapter listing many of the things the world lost once the flu destroyed everything and this might be my very favorite part of the whole book. It’s just such a perfect snapshot of how beautiful Mandel’s writing is – how clear and concise, yet filled to the brim with so much feeling and emotion it is. I just love it.

I’m not sure what else to say because Station Eleven is truly excellent. I am so happy Mandel is getting so much attention for this novel because she’s the kind of author you don’t see every day. Her stuff is unique and interesting and she is truly so talented. Highly recommended!