Gravity is the Thing – by Jaclyn Moriarty

review by Meg ***** 5-stars

IMG_8837I want to do this review right. I want to capture all of the joy and wit and humor and heartbreak in this novel. I want to share the layers of plot and narrative that compel you to read the story. And I want to revel in the dozens of underlined quotations and scribblings in my copy as I wonder at how Jaclyn Moriarty managed to capture my life – OUR lives – with its fragments of memory and philosophical musings and moments of parental and relational frustration.

But you probably don’t have that much time.

So instead, I’ll share a brief synopsis (for those that need some bait to snap at) and then why this is (as I predicted) my now favorite read of the summer.

Gravity is the Thing centers around Abigail “Abi” Sorenson and flashes between her present-day-in-2010 life and various points from the past 20 years. In 1990, within a few days, Abi both receives a letter in the mail inviting her to subscribe to something called The Guidebook – and discovers that her “Irish Twin” brother Robert has gone missing. She continues to receive random chapters from this “book” for the next 20 years as she grows up, never knowing what happened to her brother. In 2010 (where the book starts), Abi is invited to an all-expense paid retreat where she is told she will “finally learn the truth about The Guidebook.” And what follows over the course of the next year will break open parts of Abi’s life that have been haunting her for years.

It’s a life story, really. A human story. There is definitely the curious and aching thread of “what happened to Abi’s brother” that pulls the pieces of plot together sometimes. But you’re also watching Abi grow up and experience the large pains of life along with its accumulation of small sufferings. She “looks sideways” all the time for happiness, for love, for the understanding of all the “whys” (and don’t we all?). This novel cleverly (and sometimes hilariously) explores the self-help industry along with tenants of philosophers that happiness-seekers have touted for centuries. What I loved about watching Abi’s journey was seeing her wrestle with all of this – all of the “complexities of causation” as she calls it (ie. “Did I cause this bad thing to happen?”) – yet wander through it all with a quiet sense of humor. Moriarty nails it over and over again when she talks about the different kinds of “silence,” the ways we are always trying to find blame for bad things that happen (whether it’s toward someone/thing else or ourselves), the joys and frustrations and fears and insanity of parenting, and ultimately the deepest longings of our hearts: living in “the absence of fear, into truth and hope, friendship and love, all of it there.” For as Abi asserts, life “comes down to what you do with your fears and your hopes.”

Favorite Quote: Conversation, when done properly, is music.
Disjunctions, miscommunications, conversations at cross purposes, pretension, artifice, vicious jibes and, most especially, silence, all these things excoriate your soul. 

Gravity is the Thing combines philosophically delicious prose with enough narrative intrigue to keep you going. I can’t recommend it enough, although I realize that by setting the expectations up so high, some of you will crash while reading it and wonder if I’m completely crazy. Maybe I’ve soared a little too high in my praise – so if that’s the case, feel free to offer me some of your own gravity.

NOTE: Yes, Jaclyn is sister to Liane Moriarty – both Australian literary gurus!

 

The Huntress, by Kate Quinn – a review

Image result for the huntressReview by Meg – 3-stars

Some definite highs and lows to this book. So I’ll just simply lay out what did and did not work for me in The Huntress.

PROS: I think the plot narrative was riveting and easily pulled readers in. The setup as well of alternating between 3 different 3rd-person perspectives kept things interesting (as long as you can keep straight in your mind the jumping back and forth between dates – not terribly difficult). So overall, I think the main strength of this story is its narrative drive – you really do want to know HOW the story is going to end.

CONS: At least 2 main things really weakened this story in my mind (and I do realize some of this may be personal preference). First of all, I just thought all of the “love scenes” (even though they weren’t super graphic or anything), were beyond distracting. I would just be getting into the pulse of the story again and Quinn would throw in ANOTHER kissing/love-making scene where characters were “tasting soft mouths” or yanking on each others’ hair (seriously, WHAT is with ALL the hair-yanking???). So the story would totally turn into a poorly written harlequin romance novel. More and more I’m seeing (and hearing) that publishers *think* (maybe rightly so?) that this kind of stuff is what draws the masses of female readers in – if that Truly is the case, then I am ashamed of most of my fellow females readers. But on the whole, very few of the women that I know that love to read GOOD books actually enjoy reading this stuff. I would love to let publishers know that we are TIRED of this trope and just want good stories like this to stand on their own. If you disagree with this, then let me just point out one thing: almost ALL of the sex scenes in this book were portrayed between non-married characters. Maybe that’s what makes it “exciting” in people’s minds. And the one truly married couple (Jordan’s father and new wife) were simply described as “enjoying a nice honeymoon” and “keeping their bedroom off-limits.” So apparently the message is simply “Married-life sex is boring and the fun steamy stuff has to be outside of these bounds.” I fundamentally disagree with this message – so maybe that’s just a foundational thing for me. I get why a dumb harlequin romance novel would have that message, but why does it have to be stuffed into a story like this, a story that truly doesn’t NEED it in there? It would have shortened the book (and for a 540 page book, that would help), AND kept all the narrative stuff going. I do think there’s an effective way to refer to the fact that people are becoming attracted to each other without having to detail every single time they start grabbing and yanking on each other’s hair.

Secondly, and this would be the more literary con to the book, I didn’t notice any real character development. The closest Quinn got was having a few of her characters get over some of their “fears” (ie. water/drowning and heights/flying). But seriously, that’s it. None of the characters truly DEVELOPED. Jordan starts pursuing her dream of photography – but she’s still the same person. Ian is still the same guy by the end, and Nina is apparently always going to be a “rusalka” (which is supposed to be attractive, I guess?).

So while I got totally sucked into the plot, these other two major things really did kind of ruin what could have been an otherwise thrilling read for me.

A Year of Reading Well

So, new year, new plan, new goals. Everybody’s ready, right? For those of us at the Shabby Coat Book Club, we’re calling this our Year of Reading Well. I (Megan) was mostly inspired by Karen Swallow Prior’s new book On Reading Well (available at this link with free shipping) which I HIGHLY recommend as the book to start your reading year off with. Seriously. Even if all you do is read the introduction, I believe it will jump-start your reading year in some really philosophical-but-also-practical ways. A Year of Reading Well looks different for everyone. But fundamentally, it will be growing us all in the same ways:

  • The attentiveness needed to read (rather than skim) requires Patience.
  • The skills of evaluation (Is the book pointing me toward or away from a true vision of the good life?) and interpretation (What is the book ultimately saying?) require Prudence. 
  • The simple decision to set aside time to read when so much other busyness vies for our attention requires Temperance. **

These are virtues that we are wanting to cultivate – individually – as we pursue a Year of Reading WellSo what does that look like for each of us?

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MEGAN: Since I’m done teaching, I’m planning to go hard-core this year. I need the discipline and am motivated more by big goals rather than just consistency and regularity. So, with that in mind, it looks like I might get about 36 books done this year. That’s about what I did last year. But a few of these will take lots of, um, temperance.

  1. I’m going to read each novel listed in On Reading Well – there are 12, so I’m planning 1 per month. And since I’m starting with Tom Jones, I’ve got my work cut out for me (21 pages a day to get done in January). But a lot of these are great works of literature I haven’t read (though some I have). I also want to read each of her chapters along with the novel each month.
  2. I’m also going to read at least one new children’s book/juvenile fiction book per month, since I’m a school librarian and need to stay up-to-date in this area. Recommendations are always appreciated in this category!! Please send.
  3. I also want to make time for some pleasure books, so I plan to take 1 week a month to do intense reading – more during the day and on trips. My calendar should (?) be able to show me where those gaps are each month. We’ll see …

NATALIE: My goal for 2019 is simply to read at least 50 books. The first books on my list are On Reading Well by Karen Swallow PriorAll That’s Good by Hannah Anderson, and The Night Gardener by Jonathan AuxierThe Night Gardener is a middle grade book I picked up from the library shelf with only mild interest. But I took it home because the author quoted Paradise Lost (epic poem about the fall of man by John Milton) on the inside of the front cover. It’s turning into a book that rivals the Serafina series by Robert Beatty. Here are also a few things I learned from my reading last year that have helped:

  1. I read what I wanted to read, not what I thought I should read. I read a lot of fiction, but I also read more non-fiction than I typically have in the past.
  2. I read several lengthy novels, broken up by shorter books like Of Mice and Men and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Choosing shorter books that could be read quickly helped maintain momentum between longer books.
  3. Audiobooks gave me a new perspective on books I’ve read before like Pride and Prejudice and Emma. And I looked forward to folding laundry or doing dishes!
  4. I continued my habit of reading at least 10 pages early in the morning. If I couldn’t keep my eyes open to read at night, I still was making progress daily.
  5. Using multiple formats made it possible to read whenever I had a free moment. I have a hard copy of the novel for cozy reading in the morning or evening and a Kindle copy (borrowed from Overdrive or Libby) to read in a checkout line or during lunch at school.

I’ll also be posting a recap of all of my 2018 reads soon (so stay tuned!).

AB: With teaching full time, wrangling 3 kids, and trying to fit in housework, cooking, and time with my husband, the only time I have to “read” is when I’m cleaning or cooking. So that’s how much audiobooks has changed my reading life for the better. I also this last year listened to books with my kids, while we get supper ready, etc. My daughter and I have listened to City of Ember and Fablehaven so far. I also listen to books on my commute to pick up up my son from preschool, which is about 30 minutes every day (which is how I was able to listen to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road). So I don’t necessarily have a goal right now other than to keep reading/listening as I can, but hopefully these ideas might inspire others of you in this stage of life.

As you can see, even among the three of us, Reading Well looks very different given our other roles and goals we’re trying to carry out faithfully. Hopefully there was something here to benefit everyone. And we’ll be posting several updates in the next week with specific books we’d recommend (or not!) based on last year’s reading. We’d love to see what your Reading Well Goals are for this next year.

** These points taken from the introduction to On Reading Well, by Karen Swallow Prior. 

 

The 49th Mystic & Rise of the Mystics (and 50% off deal!) – by Ted Dekker

review by Meg

IMG_2546My decision to try out Ted Dekker’s new fantasy novel, The 49th Mystic, came about rather serendipitously – somehow I saw a sponsored post on Facebook one day (having never seen a Dekker post before) and was intrigued. I’ve only read one of his thriller novels before (THR3E) – but that was about 10 years ago. So I supposed you could say the marketing worked; phrases like “this is his greatest novel yet” and “if you don’t read any other book of his, at least try this one” were what pulled me in. A bit of a thrown-down gauntlet I guess. As a general rule, I don’t read fantasy literature addictively: only those novels/series that come with really strong reviews by my best book friends (like Natalie and AB). So picking up this novel at my local library was a bit of chance game, but I was game for it.

I truly loved the first novel, and was only angry to discover on the last page that it was A CLIFFHANGER AND I HAD TO WAIT FOR THE SEQUEL (ok, angry is exagerrated, but still. I hate waiting). However, the good news was that it was coming out fairly soon. I only had to wait until October 2nd. Or so I thought. Continue reading

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (+ a bonus book)

eleanorTwo Things I Know After Reading This Book:
1 – Eleanor Oliphant IS completely fine.
2 – This novel is completely wonderful.

Sometimes I get accused of “loving everything I read.” I don’t know that that’s completely true. I’m a bit selective with what I finally do choose to read, so there’s a lot of sifting that happens before the book-reading journey even commences.

All of that to say, I knew before reading this that it would be a Good Book. What I didn’t know is that it’s actually a Great Book. Honeyman achieved the feat that most would-be authors just wish and hope for: a debut novel with compelling, unique characters that bring up real-life issues and tells a story in such a way that leaves readers surprised, inspired, and thoughtful.

I don’t like reviews that simply try to recap the story – that’s what the BOOK is for. But I’ll try to recap my initial thoughts: Continue reading

What We Love this Summer on Book Lovers Day 2018

With all three of us teaching this upcoming fall and one of us having had surgery a few weeks ago, let’s just say it’s been a crazy summer … hence we haven’t posted as much. BUT that doesn’t mean we haven’t been reading – WE HAVE!! And we’ve read some great stuff this summer. So very quickly, as we dare not miss our personal national holiday, here’s a book from each of us that we’ve read this summer and loved.

moscow manNATALIE – A Gentleman in Moscowby Amor Towles – 5-Stars***** Critics are raving about this book and so are we. Ranked at #15 on Amazon’s most read books this year, this is the 30-year saga of the Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, who is placed under house arrest inside the Metropol Hotel in Moscow in 1922 by the Bolsheviks  because of his 1913 revolutionary poem written while in university.

 

49th

MEG – The 49th Mystic, by Ted Dekker – 5-stars***** Dekker is known for his plot-twists and mind-bending life questions. All of the marketing for this book promised that it would be his best yet, so of course I was skeptical. But I was wrong. Yes, this book sets you on edge and keeps you turning the pages and you read frantically trying to see what will happen to the characters. But more than that, Dekker explores our choices and motives and why we fear what we do – and how a truly perfect life of love modeled after the Messiah Jesus really can drive fear out of our lives. I was astounded to see how much he explored and how exhilarated and excited (even about the thought of death and eternity with the Messiah) I felt after reading this book. I cannot wait for the conclusion in October.

fableAB – Fablehaven, by Brandon Mull – 4-stars**** This fantasy series can be added to the list of great imaginative sagas for the upper-elementary/young adult readers. As with many of these series, you’ll find strong themes of courage in the face of danger/mortal fears – and that is why we especially love recommending these to kids and their parents.

Summer Reading 2018 – part 3

Meg’s list of some of her latest reads along with a few on her Summer To-Be-Read list. Includes both adult selections and some especially for kids. 

Screen Shot 2018-06-08 at 1.17.46 AMMeg’s Recent Reads:

The Mysterious Benedict Society, by Trenton Lee Stewart – The beginning of a fun series for kids – involving puzzles, mysteries, and lots of funny moments. Several of my school library kids have enjoyed this series and I also had several recommendations from friends. Now I’m glad to strongly recommend it for the rest of the kids. Strengths: themes of friendship, problem solving, thinking outside the box, and finding value in each person (even if they seem annoying or unhelpful on the surface). Weaknesses: possibly length for some kids persevering to the end — but I think the story is compelling enough for kids to want to push through.

Framed! (A T.O.A.S.T. Mystery #1)by James Ponti – Another great, exciting, fun adventure-mystery series for kids – this one features a 12-year-old boy named Florian Bates who has developed the Theory Of All Small Things (aka. noticing lots of tiny details in life in a very Sherlock-esque way). He’s been hired by the FBI as a covert operative. And while his adventures are dangerously thrilling, he also experiences lots of normal “kid stuff.” I really appreciated the perspective and balance of friendship (between a boy and girl, both 12 years old) and family (the parents are the smart ones – and there are consequences for disobedient choices, even done with good intentions). So lots of good stuff making this the perfect first choice for your kids’ summer reading. The second book is out now too and I’m prodding our library to get it in stock. Continue reading

Summer Reads – Part 2

AB’s recent reads and what’s also on her booklist for the summer. 

AB’s Picks:

The Hero and the Crown, by Robin McKinley – If you’ve read Beauty, McKinley’s gorgeous retelling of Beauty and the Beast, you and/or your kids will certainly this enjoy Newberry Medal Winner, The Hero and the Crown. Full of powerful lessons about identity, strength, and true love, this novel features Aerin, the young daughter of the King of Damar. However, because most of her people suspect that her long-dead mother was a witch, Aerin does not receive the kind of adulation that the rest of the King’s house enjoys. She is strong and brave, as a result, and she wants to prove herself worthy of her father’s love and gain the respect of her people. In this quest for acceptance, she masters use of a plant that protects her from dragon fire and becomes the dragon slayer that her kingdom so desperately needs.

The Lighthouse, by PD James -Number 13 in the James’s Adam Dalgliesh mystery series provides the detective fiction lover with an intelligent and realistic mystery to solve. England’s exclusive Combe Island caters to the wealthy and prestigious, who just want to be left alone. The rules of anonymity are strictly enforced, but this world of relative peace and quiet falls apart when one of the residents is found hanging from the top deck of the lighthouse. Dalgleish and his team are called in to solve this most sensitive of crimes, and the reader is treated to detailed back stories for each character that give nothing away too soon. Some mature content in places, but nothing excessive. Continue reading

Summer Reads 2018

Whether you have a long list already or are looking for some inspiration, here are some of our recent reads along with a few TBR (to-be-read) books we’re looking forward to this summer. Today’s post features 5 of Natalie’s recent picks: 

Natalie’s Picks:

Half Magic, by Edward Eager – The perfect summer read-aloud for ages 7+. Four children discover a magic coin that grants wishes—but only by halves! The children get into several funny scrapes as they learn to use the coin. Even though there are three sisters and just one boy, this book appeals to all genders. My 7-year-old son and I had fun reading this together and imagining how we would use the coin.

Educated, by Tara Westover – A fast-paced, heart-wrenching, and inspiring memoir about a woman who grew up in rural Idaho. To say she had a difficult family life is an understatement. Despite her lack of a formal education, Tara enrolled in college, eventually obtaining a PhD from Cambridge. Westover is honest about the mental struggle and difficult choice between remaining with her family or making herself an educated outcast. Continue reading

The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg

Once you see everything as a bunch of habits, it’s like someone gave you a flashlight and a crowbar and you can get to work.

51Q4AwpPDkL._SY346_We want to be healthy, do well at work, and have positive relationships with family and friends. Every year, we resolve to do better and be better, and for a while we eat well, exercise, and work hard without social media distractions. But then…

Charles Duhigg describes this cycle as the habit loop. Our brain automates our actions, the positive and negative ones. So despite our strong desire to change, we’re fighting against an automatic process. Duhigg breaks this down into three-steps. First, there’s the cue, then the routine, and, finally, there is a reward. Continue reading